Earlier this year, a post on cloudy nights spoke of an opportunity to take an online planetary science class with Mike Brown at CalTech. The course was based on a graduate level course, and consisted of online lectures, quizzes and homework. The course started with thousands, however only around 800 actually passed with a 70%. I made an 89%.
When growing up, what got me into astronomy and space was a NOVA special about the Voyager space probes that flew to the outer solar system. It was narrated by Patrick Stewart from Star Trek The Next Generation. This would have been around the time I was in 5th grade or so. I didn't think much about planetary science as a career till I was much older. Life has a way of getting in the way sometimes and things that teenagers can't control can derail things. I remember in high school there being a senior level geology class that I wanted to take. I, however, was not able to take it because of school rules. In the end it would not matter because I dropped out of high school my senior year anyway. I worked for a couple of years and then one day decided I was going to go to college. I was 19, I was in Missouri with my Dad visiting my grandmother, and by golly I was going to do it. And I did. Community college, I took English 101, Math 093D (Pre-Alegbra) and Library Skills. I passed all the courses, with each being a B. The following semester I took Math 95D (Algebra),English 102, Psychology 101, and Geology 101 with lab! So it took a few years but I got the Geology class. I passed it with a B+, and decided I was going to major in Geology and eventually study the planets. I really wanted to study Neptune! I have always loved the planet since that old NOVA special.
In the end I would not study planetary science or geology. I today have an accounting degree, and work in banking (and I do also have a high school diploma). I help develop programs that stop fraud on debit cards. I am not the person who calls you wanting to know if you did a transaction... I promise! I help write "rules" for cards that stop bad transactions from happening in the first place. But enough about that!
Now fast forward to 2015. This class I thought would be just some lectures and simple homework. Ya know, list the order of the planets. What is a crater. How does the Sun work. Stuff that one can learn on Wikipedia. I signed up because well it is space and I love anything about space. The first lecture was pretty much where the planets are in the sky. How to download the program Stellarium. That kind of thing. By about the third or fourth lecture the class was learning about the atmosphere of Mars. Needless to say this is not going to be a rehash of some "How The Universe Works" tv show or Astro 101 class.
Over the nine weeks the class got very deep. We learned about the Nice model, the Grand Tack model. We studied the chemistry of comets. We learned why Europa has oceans. We learned about why Enceladus has plumes and a ocean, and what it means. We learned that the solar system has an asteroid belt that has actual belts inside it. Yes belts inside a belt!
In the end I was challenged. And in the end I learned I was probably never capable of being a planetary scientist. Now this isn't some down with me, I am sad post. Not at all. People who study space have to be very smart and very good at math and science. I have a passion for space, but that doesn't mean I can do high level math and physics and chemistry. Academics in the space sciences also have to be willing to put up with a tough life style. They are broke a good part of their 20s and maybe 30s being grad students and post docs and researchers living on a grant, shoestring budget and maybe a prayer. And in the end, they have to be the best of the best when it comes to academics and grades. I am a solid B student. I am not a "professor smart" person.
So where am I going with this. This is sounding like a Debbie Downer. I for nine weeks, got to be a planetary scientist, well a student planetary scientist.... and I loved it. I am proud of my 89%. I am proud of a "certificate" that I earned (it is just a PDF doc with no credits at any school). I actually got to learn science and not just look at pictures or listen to a podcast (while usually mowing grass or working) and learn why things are what they are in the sky. Why our solar system is the way it is. In essence I was that fifth grader again watching and learning about the solar system all over again like it was new.
In the end I got to glimpse another life of something I could never do, but for nine weeks I did do.
But I will warn you those who are reading, it is dang tough. When the guest lecture by Bethany Ehlmann starts, you are going to be really second guessing yourself... I know I did. But I am so glad I toughed it out and grew as a person.
Thank You Mike Brown. I can not recommend your course enough.
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