Astro 4: "Stars, Galaxies, and the Origin of the Universe" Spring '20

The Corona Virus Lockdown has affected course delivery. The material to be covered will be on-line, through Canvas or perhaps Zoom once that account is finalized. Please consult your Canvas Page to see what is next on the calendar. I will keep you informed by email and Canvas as this situation develops.

Here is more college-wide information and FAQ's on how CoVid-19 has changed things at Cabrillo.

The Course

Mon-Wed 9:30-11am - Schedule , Study Guides
Mon Eve 6-9pm - Schedule , Study Guides

Textbook* and Other textbook options
My Lecture PowerPoints
Extra Credit Opportunities

On Science
Chapter 0
My Essay: On Teaching

Key Points To Focus On

Short Videos


Other Resources

An Astronomer's Life

Cabrillo Observatory

About Your Instructor

Videos: Scientists on the Big Questions

Evidence Confronts Astrology

Some Excellent YouTube Videos on Stars, Galaxies, Cosmology

Phil Plait's YouTubes "Crash Course" in Astronomy

MIRA's excellent set of Lecture notes on modern Astronomy

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




Instructor: Dr. Richard Nolthenius (but call me Rick)

Office: 706a

phone: 479-6506

Contact: Salsa page for contact info


Office Hours in 706a unless otherwise noted: 11:00-noon, 5-6pm Mon

6:00-7:00pm Tue

11:00am-noon Wed

5-6pm Fri at the observatory

and by appointment

Welcome! Astro 4 is a UC transfer-level science course. We're here to understand 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). In other words... we're not gonna be asking "what's your sign?"! With 15 weeks to play with we'll be able to cover pretty much the whole book. We'll be concentrating on scientific method, the physical laws, the birth and death of stars, galaxy evolution, evidence for the Big Bang, and current thinking on the origin of the universe and how the existence of life figures into questions of the origin of the universe, We'll have time for questions and discussion, a day at the observatory, powerpoints, and videos. I have written my own chapter on the subject of the nature of science, scientific method and clear thinking, which we'll use for this course - "Chapter 0". You should also read my essay "On Teaching" to understand my philosophy. The content of both of these will be on the exams.


Text: "The Cosmic Perspective - Stars, Galaxies, and Cosmology" 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.


What I'm here for: Encourage independent thought, healthy skepticism (not the same as cynicism!), an appreciation for how Truth is to be discovered and verified, 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 - the Mon-Wed morning class schedule , and Monday evening class schedule . We may get a tad ahead or a tad behind. Quizzes will never be given a day early, but might be given a day late if we get behind. (Links above and below to the study guides will go 'live' later during winter break, after I update).


I use powerpoint presentations most days in class. Here's the home page for the Astro 4 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 are expected to be spending 9 hours per week on this course. I don't think you'll need that much - but you might if you're very unprepared. I expect that you will study hard and you should expect that a university-level transfer science class such as this will require you to study hard, regardless of what is your mastery level going into the course. That said, there is no written homework, only study for the multiple choice exams. It is certainly POSSIBLE for you to do little work and if you have a sharp science-friendly mind that picks things up quickly and they stick, that the class will be fairly easy. However, don't come in with an attitude that you are owed an easy class!


Please realize that I have written my own exam questions. They are not from the text. They are questions representative of the knowledge contained in my lectures. I have then gone through the textbook and found the subsections where this material is most effectively discussed and made this into a study guide. Note what this means! It means that it is important to go to my lectures, and that I have not made a canned course out of a textbook. Some students complain that not every question is explicitly answered in the text. However, I make sure as I lecture that I discuss the material relevant for each and every quiz and final exam question and check them off as I go. I also make sure that at least for many questions, you must actually understand the content before you can give a confident answer - rote memorization of buzzwords won't cut it! If you're bright and digest knowledge well from books, you may still do well enough on my exams even if you don't go to my lectures. But in my experience that is the very rare student. To do well on the exams, you should plan to focus on my lectures. I don't pull exact wording out of the text (in fact, many of the questions in my test bank have been around long enough to outlive several different textbooks I've used for this course). Nor is that ever a good idea for an instructor to do - it only encourages rote memorization of factoids. To understand an idea, you should be able to see it expressed in different but self-consistent ways. To do well, you'll need genuine understanding, and mere memorized word pattern recognition such as you might be used to in high school or lower, won't help much. Luckily, you're not in high school any more, and so you should expect to actually understand and digest relationships, processes, physical laws, and how they fit together logically. That is what a good teacher should help you with, and what I can do for you in this class.


So, in this syllabus I've linked to your study guides. There's a study guide for each of the text-oriented quizzes, and for the comprehensive final exam. In the study guides, 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 to get oriented and pick up the context. Then, focus more study time on the sections corresponding to the questions. Here are the Astro 4 Mon/Wed morning Study Guides. And here are the Astro 4 Monday Eve Study Guides. 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 my test bank. Now since you will only be seeing about 20% of that total, you should pay more attention to the particular study guides relevant for this semester, as linked above. However, please note that students have found that my lectures are a more valuable source of information for the exams than is the text. The schedules will help you plan your studying.

Many texts, including ours, are a little too obsessed with purely descriptive presentations. Unfortunately, one can get lost in factoids and miss the important principles, and it's the principles which are most important and also easiest to learn and use, like... for tests! So I've put together my own 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 try to trick you; you'll do worse if you try and "psych out" the questions. Read the question, circle on the question sheet your first instinct, and then read again more carefully before pencil'ing in the scantron sheet and DON'T change your answer without a solid reason. The questions are assembled by 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 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 28% are drawn from material primarily from my lecture powerpoints, most of which is related to text material. Again, these require only studying the PowerPoints at home (especially the "red slide" at the end of each). Finally, there is another 17% 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% of your grade. There will be 6 "lecture quizzes" covering lecture and textbook material (about 8-10 multiple choice questions each), and 2 or 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. If you miss a quiz, it is recorded as a 30% (a solid F). At the end of the semester, my software will look at all of your quiz scores and drop the two lowest quizzes. If you missed one quiz, that one will be dropped and also your lowest other quiz dropped. If you missed two quizzes, it is those two and only those two which will be dropped. For any additional missed quizzes, you will 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 exam has equal weight.

Video Quizzes: Two or three ~50 minute-long video's will be shown during the semester. During the video you take notes and you may have these notes, and ONLY these notes, open while you take a quiz immediately after the video. There'll be ~15-25 questions depending on the video. Each question on each exam counts the same, so longer exams get more weight in your grade.

* Final Exam 30%: 50 multiple choice questions on lecture/ text material only (not the videos). Closed book, but you can bring in a single 8x10" sheet of paper filled with notes (handwritten only).

* 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, if you are very close to making the next higher grade and I remember how interested and involved you were during the course, I may give you that higher grade. 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 4 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. 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 15%, and assign that as your final exam grade (typically student's final exam scores are indeed lower than their quiz scores - because of the 'drop the lowest two quizzes' policy, and the video quizzes, and because it is comprehensive). Example; your average quiz score is 75%, but you miss the final. You will get a 60% score for your final. Or, if your grades are otherwise good and you let me know right away, I can give you an "incomplete", but to make up the incomplete, you will need to wait until I offer this class again (1 year later!) and then take their final exam.) .. So, DON'T MISS THE FINAL!!! Any other policy compromises test security . Does cheating happen? Check it out.


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


A......80% and above

B......70% - 80%

C......60% - 70%

D......50% - 60%

F......below 50%

Pass; 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. Note: write down your quiz scores as you go along so you can calculate what your grade would be at that moment. I expect the average grade will be in the low or maybe mid B range. But that includes a lot of students with poor study habits. However, re-entry housewives, senior citizens in their 70's, and high school student, have all earned "A" grades when they come to lecture, do the reading, and ask questions about material they don't understand. Note too, that 18-22 years olds in the prime of their life, but with maturity issues or poor study habits - have gotten F's.


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 those small, green, long, narrow scantron sheets. These are available from the bookstore for cheap; 11 (total of ~$3) will get you through the semester. I do not give make-up exams. I haven't figured out how to give a fair makeup exam which still strongly encourages proper attendance and is faithful to your study guide. That's why you're allowed 2 misses without taking zeros. The dates of the quizzes are on the schedule above. 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 an 30%.


I hand back your scantron sheets after scoring. Write down your scores and keep a running average so you'll know how you're doing. Just drop your lowest 2 quizzes, add up the total possible's, add up your number correct's, divide one into the other, compare to the scale above. Some may be surprised to 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 have. And the more fun I have, the more fun it'll be for everyone. The BEST way to learn and do well on exams is to listen, study the text, write down questions about what still isn't clear, and then at the beginning of every class when I ask "Are there any questions about past material?", poke your hand up and ask me. Make sure they're focused questions, like "I'm still not clear on what situation gives an emission line spectrum?". Don't let your shyness or lack of attention get you to the point where all you can say is "I don't understand anything about stars, or planets either ". I can't answer a question like that.


* Dropping the class: It is your responsibility to drop. If you just stop showing up and don't tell anyone, you may end up with an "NP" on your record. If you stop showing up early, I may spot the pattern of your not taking several quizzes in a row and drop you on the final "W" roster. But maybe not... This has happened too many times. Don't let it happen to you!


--Last day to go for Pass/No Pass is Apr 10, officially at least (but see me).

--Last day to withdraw is Saturday Apr 20. If you tell me I'll note it on the "W" census, I must submit the census on Apr 22.

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 my 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 and astronomy.

Added Attractions

* Get practice learning the art of thinking like a scientist! Learn healthy skepticism, and sharpen up your reasoning skills so you can debunk the pseudo-science types!  

* Purple Sucker Awards! For each quiz, those making a perfect score will earn an item of candy as a token of my esteem, and the accolades of the class.

* Bulletin boards for seeing the latest neat stuff on astronomy, as well as local lecture series, star parties, etc.

* Weather permitting, a star party at Cabrillo Observatory. Stay tuned for a date. I'll post it on the schedule page when the time and weather are right.
* Most days I'll show powerpoint presentations and the occasional science video, from PBS and other interesting sources. You'll enjoy them.

* YouTube videos: Here's a collection of some Astro 4 relevant videos and another collection here. Here's my growing list of YouTube's on Great Scientists Pondering Science and Philosophy


**** Nolthenius-brand aridly dry humor to leaven the proceedings!

Astronomy Tutoring: A graduate student in Astronomy at UCSC, Eugenio Rivera, has let me know he's available for private tutoring in Astronomy. If interested, please email me and I'll send you his contact information.

Additional Resources and Links for You, in the broader context of astronomy, science, and its relation to civilization
Evidence Confronts Astrology
TeachAstronomy - a free online text and related materials (not ready for prime time quite yet, alas).

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

YouTube video interviews with Great Scientists on the Big Questions

Web visuals and videos for Astro 4
Free Online Science Programs and Documentaries (beware; quality is highly variable)
The Real (and Junk) Science of Current Climate Change


Students with Learning Disabilities

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 room 1073, upstairs in the library (Formerly DSPS), (831)479-6379 or (831) 479-6370. 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 identify, gender expression, race, or ethnicity, color, medical, condition, genetic information, ancestry, exual 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.


Here is a valuable list of Cabrillo policies and resources for you as students


The Official Student Learner Outcomes for Astro 4

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 the reasons why the stars and galaxies look the way they do.
3. Relate differing environment and initial conditions to account for the differences between the stars, and between different galaxies.