Astro 3: "Solar System Astronomy" Fall 2020

The fall '20 course will be entirely "on line" and asynchronous in the lectures, which I plan to deliver live on ConferZoom (recording them) and then to YouTube if they're ready "for the world to see". I'll email you the Zoom link, which is typically ready within an hour after the lecture recording finished. You can replay them at will (rather than just the 2 week limit that Canvas has). I'll also link the recording to the appropriate place on our Schedule. The quizzes are not asynchronous however. They will be unlocked for a limited time and be conducted during normal scheduled class times as that's the time you shoud have free. I'll be on Canvas during the quizzes (the quizzes will be in Canvas Quizzes) and so you can live chat with me if there's any confusion on what I'm asking in the question(s). The reason to confine them to the published class periods is to minimize opportunities for foul play. Note we have two sections of Astro 3. Choose the one which fits your schedule, although again, the lectures will all be "asynchronous" so you can watch them any time.

See the rest of the Syllabus below. I'll use Canvas "Announcements" and WebAdvisor to email you all when I have something new to report. You will be able to register, sign up, and do this course without commuting to Cabrillo College.

The Course

Textbook* (not required, but useful)

section 1 MW 9:30-11am
section 2 Mon 6-9pm

Study Guides:
section 1 MW 9:30am
section 2 Mon 6-9pm

My Lecture PowerPoints
Chapter 0 as online website
On Teaching

Extra Credit Opportunities


Other Course Resources

Key Points
Evidence Confronts Astrology

Useful Links
Cabrillo Observatory
About Me
Videos: Scientists on the Big Questions
Supplementary Solar System YouTube Vids

Phil Plait's YouTubes "Crash Course" in Astronomy

An Astronomer's Life

MIRA's excellent set of Lecture notes on modern Astronomy

Useful Links from Cabrillo on
Life, Career, and other goodies as they arise


Instructor: Rick Nolthenius ( me Rick!)

Office: 706a

Contact: Salsa page for contact info


Office Hours:
Monday 11:00am-12 noon
, 5-6pm Mon, both in 706a

Tuesday 6:15-7:15pm at the Observatory (or 705 if cloudy)

Wednesday 11-12pm in 705

Friday 5-6pm at the Observatory

and by appointment


Welcome, AstroHeads! Note that this is a transfer-level science course and we're here to understand our universe and the reasoning and techniques behind the science of astronomy at a level comparable to similar courses at UC or CSU (albeit without mathematical problem solving). With 15 weeks to work with we'll be able to cover the whole solar system well. However we'll not cover the supplementary chapters. We'll be concentrating on scientific method, the physical laws, motions in the sky, the structure and origin of the solar system, a bit on climate and Earth's climate change as well. We'll have time for questions and discussion, a day at the planetarium (if CoVid gets solved), slides, and videos.

Text: "The Cosmic Perspective - The Solar System - 4th or later Editions" by Bennett, Donahue, Schneider, and Voit. *Note that the link is just to let you examine what the book is, don't assume I've shopped for the lowest price version or edition because that changes every day on Amazon. This is about half of the chapters contained in the full version "The Cosmic Perspective". Our bookstore can order it for you and promises to match the Amazon price for new or used version (Amazon's price, not 3rd party sellers). Ask them for details. The nice thing about ordering from our Bookstore is that they a portion of their profits goes to support the college. Note that we will not formally be using the E-learning material or the software, so if you can find the textbook alone, that'll be fine. You can also check out other discount online textbook sources like TextbooksRus, here and, and other places, you can find editions of our book for as little as $10 or $20, but go bargain hunting! and I believe the Student Senate has made arrangements for some texts on campus to be rent-able. Check with them. I'm as miffed as you at the steep rise in textbook costs. New editions have almost no new material, but carry a higher price tag. My advice - go to Amazon and other discount book outlets and order a used copy for way less than the almost $100 you'll pay for new versions.


I have insightful thoughts on the subject of scientific method and the nature of clear thinking. We'll use my own "Chapter 0" for this area. Please also read my essay "On Teaching", which overlaps some material from Chapter 0 but addresses a slightly different issue.


What I'm here for: Encourage clear thinking, healthy skepticism (not the same as cynicism!), an appreciation for a scientific mindset, turn you on to the joys of discovery and your true connections to the cosmos.



Here's the plan for what we'll be doing each day - Mon-Wed 9:30-11am class and Mon Eve 6-9pm class . We may get a tad ahead or a tad behind. Quizzes will never be given earlier than on these schedules, but might be given one session later if we get behind.


I use powerpoint presentations most days in class. Here's the home page for the Astro 3 PowerPoints


Study Guides


Please note - a 3-unit lecture course is required to contain material requiring 2 hours of home study for every hour of in-class lecture. That means that, including the lecture itself, you should be spending 9 hours per week on this course. I expect that you will study hard and you should expect that a university-level transfer science class will require you to study hard, regardless of what, personally, is your mastery level going into the course. Paying good attention and doing focused reading and you should do fine with less time than above. .


In this syllabus you'll be getting two study guides. One covers each of the text-oriented quizzes, and the other covers the comprehensive final exam. In the study guide, for each quiz you'll see about 8-10 sections listed, one for each of the questions on that quiz. Note that only a fraction of the sections in the book are covered on the exams. You do not have to master the entire book to do well. But you DO need to master the sections covered on exams, which may mean reading the entire chapter (or "unit" as they call them in this text) to get oriented and pick up the basic context. Then, focus more study time on the sections corresponding to the questions. Here are the Astro 3 Mon/Wed morning study guides. and the Astro 3 Mon Eve study guide. (these may link to last year's study guides. I'll fix that soon). I've also made up a larger list of the key points which are addressed in my test data bank. This list covers essentially all questions in the test bank; now since you will only be seeing maybe 20% of that total, you should pay more attention to the particular study guides relevant for this semester, as linked above. The schedules will help you plan your studying. Note that my study guide section headings go with the current edition shown at the top of this page. I've checked and there is virtually no change from the 4th to the 6th edition. So, if you have either the 4th, 5th, 6th, or 7th or later editions, you will be fine.

Unfortunately, in some lower level courses, one can get lost in factoids and miss the important principles, and yet it's the principles which are most important to learn and use, like... for tests! So I'm putting together my own super-condensation of the principles we'll be learning in this class.


Grades are a bummer! But, the law says I've got to assign them. Remember that they just reflect your performance, not your intelligence, human worth, likeability, or anything else. Since nearly all of your grade comes from multiple choice exams, you get the advantage of lucky guesses even when you don't know the answers. IMPORTANT STRATEGY - I don't deliberately try to trick you; you'll do worse if you try and "psych out" the questions. Read the question, note your first instinct, and then read again more carefully and DON'T change your instinctual answer without a solid reason. The questions are assembled by my software and there is absolutely no correlation nor anti-correlation between which letters a,b,c,d are the right answer! It's truly random!


My quizzes and exams are drawn randomly from a test bank of approximately 400 multiple choice questions which I've carefully written myself. Before each semester I look again at every question and do any revisions needed. Any given semester's class will see only a fraction of these questions on their quizzes and the final. About 55% of these questions can be answered directly from material in the text by simply reading, grasping, and remembering. Another 27% are drawn instead mainly from material in my lectures, most of which is still somewhat related to text material. Again, these require only remembering from your careful notes. Finally, there is another 18% of questions which will require you to not only understand your reading and/or notes, but to use your reasoning to make inferences and draw new conclusions. So like all good exams, there's a mixture of easy, moderate, and harder questions.


* Quizzes: 70%. There will be 6 "lecture quizzes" covering lecture and textbook material (about 8-10 multiple choice questions each), and 3 "video quizzes" (~13-26 multiple choice's). The "lecture quizzes" are closed-book. On the videos you should definitely take notes, and you may use these notes and only these notes while taking the video quizzes. Your lowest 2 quizzes (including video quizzes) scores will automatically be dropped. If you miss two quizzes, then those will be the two low scores that are dropped from your scoring. For any additional missed quizzes, you take a 30%. There are no makeups. The average of your remaining quizzes will be your quiz score, and accounts for most of your course grade. Each question has equal weight, so that longer quizzes are more important. This is to your advantage, as students usually seem to do better on the video quizzes, which tend to be longer.


* Final Exam 30%: About 50 multiple choice questions on lecture/ text material only (not the videos). You'll have at least 3 hours to do both Quiz #6 and the Final Exam, totalling about 60 questions.


* Extra Credit! You can raise your final grade percentage by doing extra credit in several ways. See the separate Extra Credit page for more.


* CLASS PARTICIPATION: My computer will give a final numerical percentage score for you. Then, when I actually assign the letter grades at the end, I will look at how close you came to making the next higher grade and then remember how interested and involved you were during the lectures. It's like a bit of extra credit for "attitude". Of course, I'll never ever give you a lower grade than your scores indicate.


Important note: If you miss the final, here's what'll happen. If you've already got a good reputation with me for working hard and the other Astro 3 section's final still hasn't been given, you may sit in and take their exam (same text and course, but different questions... I can't let you take the same exam you missed, for security and fairness to those who were there). Unfortunately, that means a different final than your study guide was tailored for (but still the study guide for the other section is available to you above). If your class has the last final exam time so there is no chance to sit in on the other class's final, I will look at your average quiz grade, lower it by 1 grades, and assign that as your final exam grade. Or, if your grades are otherwise good and you let me know right away, I can give you an "incomplete".) Example; your average quiz score is a middle"B", but you miss the final. You will get a middle "C" score for your final... So, don't miss the final!


Grading Scale: Letter grades will be assigned from your total cumulative percentage as follows:


A......80% and above

B......70% - 79%

C......60% - 69%

D......50% - 59%

F......below 50%

Credit; 60% and above.

At the end of the semester my computer takes the weighted average of all your work, plus extra credit, and gives a final percentage out of a total possible 100%. Only then do I assign a letter grade. Write down your quiz scores as you go along so you can calculate what your grade would be at that moment. Please note that Canvas Quizzes has a limited ability for me to alter scores. I have my own grading rubric; sometimes I must throw out a quiz question, or it accidentally has 2 right answers (Canvas can't deal with more than 1 right answer to multiple choice questions). If your % score is different than what Canvas shows, I'll make that clear in communicating with you and the class. I expect the average course grade will be in the B range. That includes a lot of students with imperfect study habits. However, people of all kinds have all earned "A" grades when they come to lecture, do the reading, and ask questions about material they don't understand.


Exam Policies

In order to speed scoring and to sample a larger range of questions, I give only multiple choice quizzes/exams which you'll do on Canvas quizzes. Your lowest two scores will be dropped, and that may include missed quizzes, without affecting your grade. The dates of the quizzes are on the schedule above. It's possible we might have to delay a quiz if we fall too far behind, but I will never ever give a quiz BEFORE the stated time I put into the schedule.. Remember, I consider any exam you take, in principle, as a fair sample of your mastery. The only reason I drop two is to not penalize the occasional, tragic, legitimate miss. Beyond those two, a missed quiz is recorded as a 30%. Write down your scores and keep a running average so you'll know how you're doing. Just drop your lowest two exams, add up the total possible's, add up your number correct's, divide one into the other, compare to the scale above. Those used to rote factoid-ized learning may be surprised and find my exams will stress grasping the logical connections. But remember, I like to hear questions! I know some of this material is rather abstract and I don't expect everyone will get it the first time; but only YOU can identify what you don't understand. Don't let your shyness get the better of you! The more involvement and questions you put forth, the more fun I (and we) have.


* Dropping the class: It is the student's responsibility to drop a class. If you just stop showing up and don't tell anyone, you'll likely end up with an "NC" on your record. This has happened too many times. Don't let it happen to you!

--Last day to withdraw is (see schedule of classes)

--Last day to go for Pass/No Pass is (see schedule of classes)

Once the withdrawal cutoff has happened, there's nothing I can do to keep you from getting a grade for the class - Our dean says she will not sign grade changes to "W" for forgetful students.


* Pass/No Pass: The counselors can tell you if you can or should take this class Pass/No Pass. The purpose of Pass/No Pass is to allow students to take non-essential classes "for fun", without grade pressure. It's tempting to use it as an "out" to make sure you never get a D or F, but that ruins the value of grades in evaluating performance, hence they give the early deadline. So, you need to tell me by the deadline if you decide to go for Pass/No Pass.


How to Approach this Course

What will make for a good class? I do love teaching interested people about their universe. I like to try and figure out new ways to describe the workings of the planets, stars, and galaxies with down-to-earth analogies. I like listening to you and figure out how you think, how you reason, how you construct your interpretations. No matter how foolish the world may often be, the workings of the universe at large have a logic, a symmetry, and a harmony which is beautiful to all who open themselves to it. If you can think of our time together as your time to just be curious, to talk with me, and to discover, we'll have a great time.


The ideal class "esprit de corps" would be informal and conversational... more a discussion than a "lecture", but focused on science, clear thinking, and astronomy. In the Fall '20 CoVid era, while I still welcome conversation and impromptu question asking, my experience so far is that Zoom and Canvas don't make that very easy, what with the satellite delays, audio feedback from student's phones and computer mics, etc. I accept that that's going to be a bit of an inhibitor, but still welcome your impromptu feedback.

Added Attractions

 * Get practice learning the art of thinking like a scientist. Learn healthy skepticism, a respect for evidence, and sharpen your reasoning skills so you can debunk the pseudo-science types!
* A visit to Cabrillo's planetarium. (No, not in Fall '20 during the CoVid lockdown)

  * Purple Sucker Awards! For each quiz, those making a perfect score will earn a token of my esteem; (a bit of candy), and the accolades of the class. (Alas, I won't actually meet you so - no Purple Sucker Awards in Fall '20)

  * It's not impossible that the Santa Cruz Astronomy Club, may hold star parties again before the end of the semester (but highly unlikely) in which case it'll be held at Quail Hollow near Zyante.


**** Nolthenius-brand dry humor to lighten the proceedings!


Additional Resources and Links for You

The Real Science of Current Climate Change
Astrology and the Evidence
TeachAstronomy - a free online text and related materials (a work in progress - still the early stages of development).

My essay; On Teaching
TED: lectures from famous thinkers online

YouTube video interviews with Great Scientists on the Big Questions

Solar system web visuals, videos, simulations
Free Online Science Programs and Documentaries (beware; quality is highly variable)


Students needing Special Accomodations
Students needing accommodations should inform the instructor. As required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), accommodations are provided to insure equal access for students with verified disabilities. To determine if you qualify or need assistance with an accommodation, please contact ACCESSIBILITY SUPPORT CENTER (Formerly DSPS), Room 1073, (831) 479-6379.
NONDISCRIMINATION and ACCESSIBILITY notice: The District is committed to equal opportunity in educational programs, employment, and all access to institutional programs and activities. The District, and each individual who represents the District, shall provide access to its services, classes, and institutional programs and activities. The District, and each individual who represents the District, shall provide access to its services, classes, and programs without regard to national origin, religion, age, gender, gender identity, gender expression, race, or ethnicity, color, medical, condition, genetic information, ancestry, sexual orientation, marital status, physical or mental disability, pregnancy, or military and veteran status, or because he/she is perceived to have one or more of the foregoing characteristics, or based on association with a person or group with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics.


Student Learner Outcomes

1. Analyze claims for scientific accuracy and support: Rules of evidence, Occam's Razor, and principles of clear thinking.
2. Synthesize from the basic laws of physics why our solar systems components look the way they do.
3. Contrast our solar system with others, and assess the selection effects inherent in modern methods of solar system discovery.