• University of Exeter

Invisible Worlds: Understanding the Natural Environment

Discover Earth’s invisible life-support systems and how understanding natural environments is key in tackling climate change.

8,833 enrolled on this course

Three images in a row. Volcanoes on the left, Earth from space in the middle, and microscopic organisms on the right.
  • Duration

    4 weeks
  • Weekly study

    3 hours

Delve into the history of Earth to transform your understanding of the world

Given the current climate emergency, it’s increasingly important that we have a good understanding of Earth’s life support systems. We rely on these systems for fresh air, clean water, fertile soil, rich biodiversity, and a stable climate.

On this four-week course, you’ll explore the natural systems we can’t see or feel, from microscopic creatures to gases. You’ll discover how all life is shaped by and shapes these invisible worlds, exploring the impact humans have on our natural systems.

You’ll also investigate the evolution of these systems and the history of the Earth to understand how we can learn from our past.

Gain an understanding of the carbon cycle

As you start to explore the Earth as a system, you’ll delve further into how we are all connected.

You’ll look at the carbon cycle and how this impacts climate change before investigating nutrient cycles and both the challenges and solutions that come with this.

Unpack natural systems including microbes

You’ll look at the small invisible – the microbes that run our life support system on Earth and inside our bodies.

As you discover the importance of microbes, you’ll explore what we can learn from them and what we can do better.

Understand how the Anthropocene contributes to the climate emergency

Finally, you’ll explore the age of the Anthropocene – the human era that our planet is currently experiencing.

Within this, you’ll understand how the Earth system has shaped us and how we in turn are reshaping the Earth system.

This course expands on the content shown at the Eden Project’s Invisible Worlds exhibition. Guided by the experts at the University of Exeter and the Eden Project, you’ll finish the course with a solid understanding of the Earth’s natural systems.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds [BREATHING] We take 20 thousand breaths a day To extract the oxygen from the air that we need to live. Wake up the next morning, the oxygen’s still there. There’s an invisible world A life support system which gives us this clean air, fresh water, fertile soil, rich biodiversity, a stable climate, and a phenomenal recycling system. I’m Professor Tim Lenton, from the University of Exeter. And I’m Dr Jo Elworthy from the Eden Project. And together, we’re going to be teaching you about the incredible Invisible Worlds that provide this life support system for us.

Skip to 0 minutes and 46 seconds Invisible Worlds is also an exhibition here at the Eden Project, where scientists like myself work with communicators, artists, designers, writers to bring those Invisible Worlds to our senses and to explore a fresh perspective on our life support system. Because if we are to have a flourishing future on this planet, with all the magnificent life forms that we share it with then we need to see our place in the world in a new way. We need to think about how we interact with the rest of our life support system to create a better future together.


  • Week 1

    Past Invisible

    • Invisible Worlds

      Reveal the worlds beneath your senses - beginning with worlds too far away in space and time.

    • The Past Invisible

      Learn about the evolution of our life support system over 4.5 billion years; from a sterile ball of rock to the world as we know it today.

    • Oxygen

      How was oxygen introduced to Earth, some 3 billion years ago? And how does it stay at a steady level in our atmopshere?

    • Revolutions

      Explore how small changes in Earths history became revolutionary to the evolution of its Life Support System.

    • Learning from the Past Invisible

      We've now followed the Earth through its astonishing 4.5 billion year lifetime. How can we learn from the lessons of Earth's invisible past?

  • Week 2

    Vast Invisible

    • The Vast Invisible

      Welcome to the Vast Invisible!

    • Carbon

      Body Builder, Energy Supplier, Air Warmer

    • Nutrient Cycles

      Meet two of the most important nutrients in the Earth System

    • Summarising the Vast Invisible

      Simmering down the enormous vast invisible

  • Week 3

    Small Invisible

    • Introducing the Small Invisible

      Welcome to the Small Invisible!

    • Minions, or Masters of the Universe?

      See how the smallest things underpin the biggest things; the life support systems.

    • Learning from the Small Invisible

      What role does the Small Invisible play in our future lives?

  • Week 4

    Invisible Worlds in the Anthropocene

    • Interconnections and the Anthropocene

      Interconnections that shaped us, to be reshaped by us

    • Influences on and from the Anthropocene

      Discover how the Earth has influenced the evolution of humans, and how we now affect it in the Anthropocene

    • The Future of the Anthropocene Influence

      Will future Anthropocene threats be met with solutions from Invisible Worlds?

    • Course wrap-up

      Thank-you for joining us!

Learning on this course

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...

  • Describe the fundamental science of the invisible worlds
  • Understand how everything on Earth is interconnected
  • Understand the past: the evolution of the planet and our life support system
  • See yourself within the vast: the planetary cycles that we depend on
  • Respect the small: the microbes that built and maintain the life support system
  • Discuss human effects, and how to work towards a positive future
  • Discuss the role played by art and exhibitions in science communication

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for anyone with an interest in nature and the environment, including students and policymakers. A science background is not necessary to follow the videos and articles.

Invisible Worlds is an exhibition at the Eden Project, where scientists work with communicators, artists, designers, and writers to bring those Invisible Worlds to our senses and to explore a fresh perspective on our life support system.

Who will you learn with?

Professor Tim Lenton is Chair in Climate Change/Earth System Science at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on understanding the behaviour of the Earth as a whole system.

Dr Rhiannon White is a Biochemist, Cell Biologist and Content Curator for the interpretation and science communication team at the Eden Project, Cornwall, UK.

Dr Jo Elworthy, Director of Interpretation, the Eden Project. Jo trained in plant science and works in science communication with a particular interest in reconnecting people with the natural world

Who developed the course?

University of Exeter

The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university. It combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction.

Endorsers and supporters

supported by

Wolfson Foundation logo

supported by

Wellcome logo

supported by

Arts Council England

supported by

Eden Project logo

Learning on FutureLearn

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