We are situated on a modest-sized planet in a planetary system that includes a great diversity of planet types. We don’t yet know whether planetary systems like ours are common in the universe. Why are the planets within our solar system so diverse? How did they form and evolve? What makes Earth so special for life? Could life have evolved on other planets within our own solar system? Recent major news items that bear on these issues include the purported discovery of fossil life forms in a meteorite that may have come from Mars, and the possible existence of liquid water oceans under the icy surface of Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Virtually every week, a major news item appears regarding some aspect of planetary study, past, present, or future.
This course is designed to explore the concepts upon which our understanding of solar system formation and evolution are based. In this course, we will be particularly interested in examining the logical and intuitive thought processes that have led to our generally “accepted” ideas about how and when the solar system formed and evolved. For example, one aspect of the course will be to consider the age of the solar system and critically examine the techniques that have been used to constrain the age. An equally important task of this course is to discuss and highlight the many things about the solar system that we do not know or understand, and explore future experiments that may help to reduce these gaps in our knowledge. Present and future tax dollars will likely pay for some of this exploration, so it is critical that a well-educated voter understand the issues involved.