Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A New Term with New Tools

 A new textbook of my own design awaits my Planetary Science students this fall!

I've got to say, as much as I've enjoyed the last 8 months of research, I am looking forward to the coming semester of teaching. Once again, I'll be the course director for PHYS 3070: Planets and Planetary Systems and also for PHYS 4120: Gas and Fluid Dynamics.

This will be my first time teaching a class for the second time, and that means that I have the opportunity to fine tune my course organization and lectures. While both courses went well last year, there is room for improvement which will hopefully be appreciated by the dozen or so Planetary Science and 20ish Fluids students.

For fluids, I think things are going relatively well. We will keep the same text, but perhaps will back off on the problem solving side of the course to allow for covering more material. This is more of a minor tinkering than anything else. The biggest change will be my effort to incorporate more olde-tyme NACA video into my lectures.

The biggest changes coming are in Planetary Science. Bedeviling this field is the continued want of a good upper level undergraduate textbook. There are plenty of 1st-year Natural Sciences (or "NATS") equivalent books out there, but the next step up seems to be towards more graduate-focused texts. Not surprising, given that my graduate Planetary Science education consisted of seven separate courses! Amongst the more technical undergraduate offerings, many either restrict their focus too much to be useful as a first course (for instance Planetary Surface Processes is an exceptional book, but is missing many non-surficial processes by intent) or choose a course format that I dislike, such as walking through the solar system planet by planet and body by body.

What's wrong with this approach? Well, for one, it tends to emphasize the differences between planets rather than to the similarities that reveal underlying processes that apply the solar system over. With the dramatic increase in the number of discovered Exoplanets, I'm more convinced than ever that understanding Planetary in terms of such processes will be key to understanding the wider menagerie out there. But at the same time, without doing a concerted tour, it is difficult to give students a taste of the variety that exists. That was my lesson from the last time around.

So this time I'm doing it differently. I'm going to walk through the solar system three times. First I'll cover what we've discovered with our spacecraft in a whirlwind of a lecture. Then we'll go through planet by planet and body by body, working outward from the Earth to gradually more exotic locales over the course of about a month. Finally the rest of the term will be zeroing in on processes by developing a toolbox of mathematics covering celestial mechanics, atmospheric optics and dynamics as well as interior processes, topography and cratering. We'll wrap it all up by exploring one of the major motivators for planetary exploration and one of the most interesting consequences of planetary formation: the emergence of life.

Does any one textbook contain such topics? One does now! Thanks to the good folks at Canadian Scholar's Press (CSPI) I've been able to glue together disparate chunks into a unified whole (and, pleasingly, those authors whose texts I excerpt will get residual royalties from their inclusion in my compendium). I'm quite happy with the results and I hope my students are as well! PHYS 3070 Planets and Planetary Systems is now available at fine bookstores everywhere for under $100 or through the publisher directly.

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