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In-Depth Review: The Science of the Solar System

Written by Pat Bowden
6 minute read
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This review is by Pat Bowden. Since discovering MOOCs in 2012, she has completed more than 60 fascinating courses and is delighted to be able to learn about a wide variety of subjects without leaving home.

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I now know how scientists have come to understand other bodies in the solar system without setting foot on them. 

The Science of the Solar System is a very well presented course which discusses geology, chemistry, biology and the needs of life as well as the physics and mathematics associated with many astronomy courses. Presented in a conversational style by Caltech professor Mike Brown, it is divided into four units: Water on Mars, The Insides of Giant Planets, Big Questions from Small Bodies, and Life in the Solar System and Beyond. Each lecture was an eye-opener for me. Not only were all kinds of information presented, I now know how scientists have come to understand other bodies in the solar system without setting foot on them.

Lecture2-15_4min57secs

BACKGROUND

Having already crashed and burned in two astronomy MOOCs, I was at first skeptical of trying yet another challenging course full of mathematics and physics, far beyond my rusty high school skills. In the discussion forums of an Earth Science course, however, several fellow students recommended this course. They said there was more emphasis on understanding concepts than complex calculations, so I decided to try it. Yes, the calculations are there from time to time, but they are usually introduced as a tool for the on-campus Caltech class (who are required to know these things) and most are an optional extra for MOOC participants.

COURSE SUMMARY

Introduction to Science of the Solar System

Finally, forty years after studying chemistry at high school, I understood hydrogen bonding. 

This fascinating class focuses on the planets and small bodies in the solar system to explain many things about the formation and evolution of the solar system, our earth, the moon, and most importantly to me, why things are as they are. Prof Mike explains why there is no liquid water on Mars today, even though there was liquid water in the past, and water still exists as ice in the Martian polar caps and as vapor in the sparse atmosphere. He explains why the conditions on Earth have allowed life to evolve. He even explains the chemistry behind why life is unlikely to happen in situations far removed from our ideal conditions of temperature and atmosphere. Another why he explained was why water is a polar molecule – the electrons shared by the oxygen atom and the two hydrogen atoms spend more time between the atoms and near the larger oxygen atom than on the far sides of the hydrogen atoms, so the hydrogen ends of the molecule have a slightly positive charge. Finally, forty years after studying chemistry at high school, I understood hydrogen bonding.

There is also some biology in this course. This should not be a surprise, because the fourth unit talks about possible extraterrestrial life. Prof Mike discusses the needs of life and what signals of temperatures and gases may indicate possible life forms on some of the moons in the solar system as well as on newly-discovered exoplanets.

LECTURER

★★★★★
He finally has convinced me that it was necessary to reclassify Pluto.
– Review By Class Central User 

I was blown away by the opportunity to learn from a Caltech professor. (Fans of television’s “The Big Bang Theory” know that the characters work at Caltech.) In the introductory lecture of the course, Professor Mike Brown says he is excited and thrilled to have the opportunity to reach interested students all around the world. His enthusiasm and passion for the subject shine throughout the course, adding greatly to my enjoyment. He convincingly explains why Pluto is not considered a planet by today’s astronomers. You can find him on www.MikeBrownsPlanets.com and on Twitter @plutokiller. Since I completed the course in June 2015, he has been in the news by announcing the existence of Planet Nine along with colleague Konstantin Batygin.

COURSE CONTENT

As mentioned above, this course has four major sections. Each section has its own quiz and there is also a final exam at the end. The quizzes and exam, although lacking the frequent heavy calculations of other astronomy courses, were still quite challenging and usually required students to carefully go through the videos. There are about ten videos each week, generally between ten and twenty minutes long, although some are shorter or longer. This makes up around two hours of lectures each week, although to do well, you will probably need to spend much more time than this. There are occasional guest lecturers, who are specialists in their fields. Extra resources include many optional readings and links to useful websites. Occasionally, articles are only available at a price, so Prof Mike includes suggestions for obtaining them through libraries or universities.

In the early weeks, I breezed through the videos and read some of the optional readings but it was so interesting that in the later weeks of the course, I found myself taking copious notes while watching the lectures. 

In the early weeks, I breezed through the videos and read some of the optional readings but it was so interesting that in the later weeks of the course, I found myself taking copious notes while watching the lectures. This is a great advantage of online learning. Not only can I speed up the video during things I already know, I can also pause or rewind it for full understanding and to take notes at my own pace. Being able to download the videos is a big advantage here.

FORUMS

The discussion forums in the class I took (April – June 2015) were fascinating and dynamic. I spent more time than I had planned simply trawling the forums for interesting snippets and discussions. This was a class where students could post a query and others would help them understand it without criticism. Hopefully discussions in future runs of the class will also be interesting and helpful for any struggling students. It was also a great buzz to see “Mike Brown, Instructor” on some forum posts and I hope he will continue to appear in the forums of future runs.

NEXT STEPS

What Next? This course was so riveting that even though I passed, I have signed up for the session starting on June 9, 2016. Other students have also come back for seconds. 

What Next? This course was so riveting that even though I passed, I have signed up for the session starting on June 9, 2016. Other students have also come back for seconds.

Because this course touches on geology, chemistry and biology as well as the expected mathematics and physics, there are many related courses. You could look at Coursera’s “Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life” or “Origins – Formation of the Universe, Solar System, Earth and Life.” Students also recommended Futurelearn’s “Moons.

Conclusion: Quite challenging for my 40-year-old high school maths and physics but oh so satisfying when I passed the course!

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