Every now and then I order a course on DVDs from The Great Courses. Most recently, I’ve been viewing Skywatching, a course by Alex Fippenkio on the sky, day and night: what can be seen in it and the physics of why it looks the way it does.

Roughly the first third of the course deals with what we can see in the daytime sky. Dr. Filippenko discusses sky color in midday and when the sun is rising or setting, clouds, lightning, and the interaction of sunlight with water and ice (giving rainbows and halos.) This is closely related to what I researched and taught, so I didn’t really lean anything new. The presentation, however, was generally good. I did catch an error in one diagram, but I suspect that was the graphic designer. (The diagram is the one used to explain polarization in reflected light, and the error is that the angle of reflection and the angle of incidence are not shown as equal.) I was also rather disappointed that Dr Filippenko did not point out that frozen droplets are initially near-spherical, and develop their hexagonal prism shape (and the optical effects this produces) only later, by vapor-phase growth. But I suppose I shouldn’t expect everyone to be familiar with ice fog.

This section of the course should be of particular interest to writers needing information on sky and cloud cover, storms, and less common phenomena such as rainbows or sundogs. If you are going to describe an evening sky, you’d better have some idea of what’s happening.

Roughly half the course deals with the constellations and observing the bodies of the solar system. Most of this I was familiar with as an amateur, and I’ve used some of it — lunar phases and seasons, for instance — in my writing. Every writer who wants to put a moon in the sky should watch the section on lunar phases. Rising crescent moon in the evening? Nope. Just doesn’t happen. Neither does a narrow crescent high in the sky.

The lecture on solar eclipses brought back the one I saw, shortly after I moved to Alaska in 1963. I didn’t have a car yet, but two other graduate students gave me a ride down to Sourdough, Alaska to see the total solar eclipse of July 20, 1963. There were scattered high clouds, and while they added suspense –would the sky be clear during totality? – they wound up adding to the experience. Every bright spot of Bailey’s Beads had its own rainbow (technically iridescence.) I know I took a picture; I remember taking photos both before and after the eclipse, the ones after being a series with the exposure set at a constant value to capture the change in the light. I found that series, but so far the ones before and during totality are missing. They may have been separate from the others and lost during the fire twelve years ago.

Overall I’d give the course an A. Dr. Filippenko is a wonderful teacher, and with few exceptions the graphics are excellent. The course takes 3 DVDs and consists of 12 45-minute lectures.