From the beginning to where we are now, explore the formation of the Earth and the history of life on the blue planet.

Earth and Life
  • Duration

    3 weeks
  • Weekly study

    3 hours
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Explore the theories on how life on Earth came to be

The mystery of life’s origins on Earth has been slowly chipped away as scientists discover more and more evidence to support their theories.

On this three-week course, astrobiologist Dr Louisa Preston will take you on a trip through the history of Earth, from dust to a planet, exploring the theories and events that shape the story of life.

Travel back to the formation of the Earth and witness the Late Heavy Bombardment

Did life start at the bottom of the ocean? Deep in the Earth’s clay? Or did it come from outer space?

Starting at the beginning, when our blue planet wasn’t so blue, you’ll explore stages of the Earth’s formation and the theories on how life began here. You’ll then look at the implications of the Late Heavy Bombardment, a hypothesised event in which asteroids collided with early terrestrial planets, including Earth.

How can you read the Earth’s timeline?

The geological record of the Earth holds many secrets of the planet’s history. From its past climate to the evolution of life, understanding geological processes is vital to understanding Earth.

You’ll investigate these processes and how they moulded the Earth, giving you a gateway into the way experts read Earth’s timeline. And, using your knowledge of the Earth’s composition and structure, you’ll apply your findings to other planets to better understand their environments.

Discover the journey of life on Earth, from the Cambrian Explosion to mass extinction events

According to some scientists, there have been at least five major extinction events in the Earth’s history.

This course will delve into these extinction-level events to look at how they’ve shaped life on Earth. You’ll also track the Cambrian Explosion, an event when simple life is believed to have diversified and complex organisms started appearing.

Syllabus

  • Week 1

    The formation of the Earth

    • Welcome to the course

      We will begin by building our planet from the ground up, exploring its violent early history and assessing the possibilities for where life may have first arisen.

    • From dust to a planet

      How do you build a planet? Here we will look at how the Earth and Mars were built from a sea of gas and dust, and how these barren rocky bodies eventually became watery worlds.

    • The Late Heavy Bombardment

      Here we'll learn about a violent period in Earth's history, a time when the inner planets of the Solar System were assaulted by space debris for hundreds of thousands of years, and what this meant for life.

    • The origins of life on the early Earth

      Let’s explore how life might have arisen on the early Earth. There are many competing theories and we still don’t know exactly how, where or even when life first arose, but we have some very plausible ideas!

    • Weekly wrap-up

      What a long journey for the Earth this week – from dust grains to a world beginning to spawn the chemistry for life! Here we'll recap some key concepts and look forward to next week, where we'll be exploring the Earth's structure.

  • Week 2

    How the Earth works

    • Welcome to Week 2

      This week we'll start to explore what the Earth is made of. We'll look beneath its crust, track how the continents have moved across its surface and learn how we are searching for signatures of life within the geological record.

    • What is the Earth made of?

      Here we’ll explore how the Earth is layered with a solid and liquid core, convecting mantle and crust. We will also see how scientists study the inner workings of the Earth despite not being able to access them directly.

    • The Earth's movements

      Now let's look at how the Earth moves and the impact this has on planetary habitability. Understanding the internal mechanics of the Earth is helping us to understand what's going on under the surface of Mars.

    • The geological record

      Next we’ll learn about the geological record: the history of the Earth that helps us navigate our past. We'll also explore how we work out how old rocks are, and what signatures of life buried within the rock record look like.

    • Weekly wrap-up

      Now that we know the structure of the Earth and can interpret the geological record, we will recap some useful concepts and see how this knowledge can help us to navigate the timings of the evolution of life on Earth.

  • Week 3

    The history of life

    • Welcome to Week 3

      The history of life on Earth is a fascinating tale with every conceivable character you can imagine. In this final week of the course, let’s meet our ancestors!

    • The earliest life

      Let’s meet the oldest ancestor of all life alive today, LUCA, and explore the tree of life. We will also be introduced to our single-celled relatives and learn about the rise of oxygen on the Earth.

    • Multicellular life

      Here we will see the consequences of rising oxygen levels on the Earth, for both life and the planet, and we’ll explore how life flourished in this new oxygen-laden environment.

    • Mass extinctions

      Mass extinctions are catastrophic events that have occurred a few times in Earth’s history, wiping out nearly all organisms on the planet and changing the course of life forever. Are we at risk of an extinction-level event today?

    • Course wrap-up

      This week we have covered planetary formation, the origins and evolution of life and extinctions. Now it is time to wrap-up and consolidate everything we have learnt in this course.

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Learning on this course

You can take this self-guided course and learn at your own pace. On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Explore the key stages of the Earth's formation
  • Describe the implications of the Late Heavy Bombardment for life on Earth
  • Summarise the different theories as to how life arose on the Earth
  • Investigate geological process that shape the Earth
  • Explain how the geological record can help read Earth's timeline.
  • Describe the oxygen revolution that enabled us to come to exist
  • Summarise the history of life from the Cambrian Explosion to today
  • Investigate extinction-level events on earth and other planets

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for anyone interested in the fundamentals of astrobiology, particularly life on Earth.

It will be especially useful to university applicants looking to identify areas that they’d like to specialise in and STEM teachers looking to bring science to life for their students.

Who will you learn with?

I am an astrobiologist, geologist, and author at the Natural History Museum in London. I am also on the science team for the European Space Agency ExoMars 2022 Mars rover ‘Rosalind Franklin'.

Who developed the course?

FutureLearn

FutureLearn is jointly owned by The Open University and The SEEK Group and has been providing online courses for learners around the world over the last eight years.

About this ExpertTrack

Discover the fascinating field of astrobiology; study life on earth, space exploration, and how they intersect.

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