Origins - Formation of the Universe, Solar System, Earth and Life

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About this course: The Origins course tracks the origin of all things – from the Big Bang to the origin of the Solar System and the Earth. The course follows the evolution of life on our planet through deep geological time to present life forms.

Who is this class for: The course is intended for students at college and undergraduate university level. However, it can also be followed by others who have a basic knowledge of biology, chemistry, geology and physics.

Created by:  University of Copenhagen
  • Taught by:  Henning Haack, Associate Professor

    Natural History Museum
  • Taught by:  James Connelly, Professor

    Natural History Museum of Denmark
  • Taught by:  …

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When you enroll for courses through Coursera you get to choose for a paid plan or for a free plan

  • Free plan: No certicification and/or audit only. You will have access to all course materials except graded items.
  • Paid plan: Commit to earning a Certificate—it's a trusted, shareable way to showcase your new skills.

About this course: The Origins course tracks the origin of all things – from the Big Bang to the origin of the Solar System and the Earth. The course follows the evolution of life on our planet through deep geological time to present life forms.

Who is this class for: The course is intended for students at college and undergraduate university level. However, it can also be followed by others who have a basic knowledge of biology, chemistry, geology and physics.

Created by:  University of Copenhagen
  • Taught by:  Henning Haack, Associate Professor

    Natural History Museum
  • Taught by:  James Connelly, Professor

    Natural History Museum of Denmark
  • Taught by:  Vivi Vajda, Professor

    Department of Geology, Lund University
  • Taught by:  Jon Fjeldså, Professor, Curator

  • Taught by:  Thomas Gilbert, Professor

  • Taught by:  Michael Houmark-Nielsen, Associate Professor

    Natural History Museum of Denmark
  • Taught by:  Bent Erik Kramer Lindow, Curator

    Natural History Museum of Denmark
  • Taught by:  Gilles Guy Roger Cuny, Associate Professor

    Natural History Museum of Denmark
  • Taught by:  Ole Seberg, Associate Professor

    Natural History Museum of Denmark
  • Taught by:  Gitte Petersen, Associate Professor

    Natural History Museum of Denmark
  • Taught by:  Tais Wittchen Dahl, Assistant Professor of Geobiology

  • Taught by:  Arne Thorshøj Nielsen, Associate Professor

    Natural History Museum of Copenhagen
  • Taught by:  Martin Vinther Sørensen, Associate Professor, Curator

    Natural History Museum of Denmark
  • Taught by:  Svend Stouge, Associate Professor

    Natural History Museum of Denmark
  • Taught by:  Danny Eibye Jacobsen, Associate Professor, Curator

    Natural History Museum of Denmark
  • Taught by:  Jan Audun Rasmussen, Associate Professor

    Natural History Museum of Denmark
  • Taught by:  Emily Catherine Pope, Assistant professor

    Natural History Museum of Denmark
Commitment 5-7 hours/week Language English How To Pass Pass all graded assignments to complete the course. User Ratings 4.7 stars Average User Rating 4.7See what learners said Coursework

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University of Copenhagen The University of Copenhagen is the oldest University in Denmark - founded in 1479, and with over 38,000 students and more than 9,000 employees. The purpose of the University is to conduct research and provide education to the highest academic level. Based in Denmark's capital city it is one of the top research institutions in Europe.

Syllabus


WEEK 1


Origin of the Elements, the Solar System and the Planets



In the first module of Origins Jim Connelly and Henning Haack go through the evolution that resulted in the Solar System with the planets that we know today. Jim will tell you about how the elements of the periodic table were formed. Without these elements there would be no Solar System, no planets and no life at all. We have added a couple of more videos that we hope you will also find interesting. One gives you an introduction to Geological time. Videos 1.7-1.9 deals with some of our most interesting meteorites from the collections at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. Much of the evidence for the theories presented in Module 1 has been obtained from meteorites.


11 videos, 2 readings expand


  1. Video: Course intro – Henning Haack
  2. Video: Introduction to time lines – Henning Haack
  3. Reading: Lecturers
  4. Reading: Readings and resources
  5. Video: 1.1 Nucleosynthesis: the origin of elements in our Solar System - Part 1 – Jim Connelly
  6. Video: 1.2 Nucleosynthesis: the origin of elements in our Solar System - Part 2 – Jim Connelly
  7. Video: 1.3 Origin of the Elements, the Solar System and the Planets - Origin of the Solar System – Henning Haack
  8. Video: 1.4 Origin of the Elements, the Solar System and the Planets - Meteorites – Henning Haack
  9. Video: 1.5 Origin of the Elements, the Solar System and the Planets - Mars and the Moon – Henning Haack
  10. Video: 1.6 Origin of the Elements, the Solar System and the Planets - Exoplanets – Henning Haack
  11. Video: 1.7 The Worlds Largest Meteorite Slice – Henning Haack
  12. Video: 1.8 Allende - A World Famous Meteorite – Henning Haack
  13. Video: 1.9 Imilac - An Exceptionally Beautiful Meteorite Slice – Henning Haack

Graded: Quiz 1

WEEK 2


The early Earth and origin of life



In this module we are going to have a look at our own planet, just after it formed. Emily Pope will introduce you to the most important geological principles and processes that characterize our Earth. This should make it easier for you to understand how we use geology to reconstruct the evolution of our planet and the life forms that inhabit it. With such tools in hand, Emily will take you on a tour back in deep geological time and tell you about the earliest evolution of our planet and the oldest evidence for life on Earth. We will also take you on a trip to Greenland where Minik Rosing will show the rocks in which he found the oldest evidence for life on Earth.


6 videos expand


  1. Video: 2.1 The early Earth and origin of life - Uniformitarianism and the Basics of How the Earth Works - Emily Pope
  2. Video: 2.2 The early Earth and origin of life - Geologic Time and the Origin of Earth - Emily Pope
  3. Video: 2.3 The early Earth and origin of life - Finding Evidence for the Origin of Life - Emily Pope
  4. Video: 2.4 The early Earth and origin of life - How to Make Life (or at Least a Best Guess) - Emily Pope
  5. Video: 2.5 The early Earth and origin of life - Geology of the Precambrian: The Mantle and Crust - Emily Pope
  6. Video: 2.6 The early Earth and origin of life - Geology of the Precambrian: The Hydrosphere and Atmosphere - Emily Pope

Graded: Quiz 2

WEEK 3


Origin of the microbial world / The Cambrian Explosion and Exceptional Preservation



In this module Jan Audun Rasmussen and Danny Eibye-Jacobsen will show you how life evolved during the first 4 billion years since the creation of the Earth. As you will see, it is very challenging to study the oldest life forms of our planet. During this enormous time span – which covers about 80% of the Earth’s history – microbial life slowly evolved to form a crucial component of the biosphere. Toward the end of the period the deepest foundations of the different groups of animals evolved. All of the life forms surrounding us today can be traced back to this time.


8 videos expand


  1. Video: 3.1 Origin of the microbial world: Part 1 - Jan Audun Rasmussen
  2. Video: 3.2 Origin of the microbial world: Part 2 - Jan Audun Rasmussen
  3. Video: 3.3 Origin of the microbial world: Part 3 - Jan Audun Rasmussen
  4. Video: 3.4 Origin of the microbial world: Part 4 - Jan Audun Rasmussen
  5. Video: 3.5 Origin of the Metazoans and evolution of life at small scale - Danny Eibye-Jacobsen
  6. Video: 3.6 The Cambrian Explosion and exceptional preservation: Part 1 - Danny Eibye-Jacobsen
  7. Video: 3.7 The Cambrian Explosion and exceptional preservation: Part 2 - Danny Eibye-Jacobsen
  8. Video: 3.8 The Cambrian Explosion and exceptional preservation: Part 3 - Danny Eibye-Jacobsen

Graded: Quiz 3

WEEK 4


Transition from Microbial to Macrobial Life: Snowball Earth and the Ediacara Biota / Eukaryotic Evolution and the Phylogeny of All Life



In this module, we take a closer look at how the physical and biological conditions that made the Cambrian Explosion possible arose. In the first lectures Svend Stouge will tell you about the dramatic consequences of climate changes seen toward the end of the Precambrian. Geological evidence supports the idea that the Earth was completely covered in ice during periods that we, for obvious reasons, refer to as Snowball Earth. In the remaining lectures Martin Sørensen will tell you about one of the most significant building blocks of life on Earth – the cell – and how the early bacterial cells evolved and became capable of forming the huge variety of life that we see today. Martin Sørensen will also show how different evolutionary trends of cells resulted in six major organism groups, of which several gave rise to multicellular life.


7 videos expand


  1. Video: 4.1 Transition from microbial to macrobial life: Snowball Earth and the Ediacara Biota - Part 1 - Svend Stouge
  2. Video: 4.2 Transition from microbial to macrobial life: Snowball Earth and the Ediacara Biota - Part 2 - Svend Stouge
  3. Video: 4.3 Eukaryotic Evolution and the Phylogeny of All Life - The Transition from the Prokaryotic to the Eukaryotic Cell and the Endosymbiont Theory - Martin V. Sørensen
  4. Video: 4.4 Eukaryotic Evolution and the Phylogeny of All Life - The Eukaryotic Tree of Life and the Six Super Kingdoms: Archaeplastida - Martin V. Sørensen
  5. Video: 4.5 Eukaryotic Evolution and the Phylogeny of All Life - The Six Super Kingdoms: Excavata and Rhizaria - Martin V. Sørensen
  6. Video: 4.6 Eukaryotic Evolution and the Phylogeny of All Life - The Six Super Kingdoms: Chromalveolata - Martin V. Sørensen
  7. Video: 4.7 Eukaryotic Evolution and the Phylogeny of All Life - The Six Super Kingdoms: Amoebozoa and Opisthokonta - Martin V. Sørensen

Graded: Quiz 4

WEEK 5


Origin of the marine Cambrian and Palaeozoic Evolutionary Faunas / Diversity in deep time / Origin of predation and the Mesozoic Arms race



In module 5, Arne Thorshøj Nielsen and Jan Audun Rasmussen will show you how the higher life forms, particularly the marine animals, evolved in the oceans, after the sudden appearance of a hard skeleton in many different animal groups during the Cambrian Explosion 540 My ago. You will be introduced to the changing major evolutionary faunas through time, and also see how clever strategies to kill or avoid being killed, major extinction events and many other factors controlled the evolution that eventually resulted in the modern marine faunas.


5 videos expand


  1. Video: 5.1 Ancient biodiversity: Origin of the Cambrian Evolutionary Fauna - Arne Thorshøj Nielsen
  2. Video: 5.2 Ancient biodiversity: Origin of the Palaeozoic Evolutionary Fauna - Arne Thorshøj Nielsen
  3. Video: 5.3 Ancient biodiversity: Origin of the Modern Evolutionary Fauna - Part 1 - Jan Audun Rasmussen
  4. Video: 5.4 Ancient biodiversity: Origin of the Modern Evolutionary Fauna: Part 2 - Jan Audun Rasmussen
  5. Video: 5.5 Ancient biodiversity: Origin of predation and the Mesozoic Arms Race - Jan Audun Rasmussen

Graded: Quiz 5

WEEK 6


Oxygenation and Animals



In module 6 Tais Wittchen Dahl will take a detailed look at one of the most important factors controlling the evolution of life - oxygen. In the previous lectures you have already heard that the oxygen levels have changed in the past. Tais will show you what the mechanisms behind changes in global oxygen levels are and what are the most important consequences. One of the amazing possible consequences was that during the Carboniferous, dragonflies had wing spans of up to 75 cms! Higher oxygen levels not only allowed for the evolution of higher life forms, it may also have limited the size of insects and predatory fish, and ultimately furthered the evolution of intelligent life. Without the increase in oxygen, it would be impossible for us to understand the lectures in this course!


3 videos expand


  1. Video: 6.1 Oxygenation and Animals: The O2 Cycle on Earth - Tais Wittchen Dahl
  2. Video: 6.2 Oxygenation and Animals: Evidence for O2 levels on Early Earth - Tais Wittchen Dahl
  3. Video: 6.3 Oxygenation and Animals: Feedbacks between life and O2 - Tais Wittchen Dahl

Graded: Quiz 6

WEEK 7


Origins and Early Development of Plants / The Origin and Diversification of Flowering Plants



In module 7, we will have a closer look at the biggest source of oxygen – the plants. Up till now we have heard a lot about the evolution of higher life forms in the oceans. While evolution took a giant step forward in the oceans, the continents remained totally barren for another approx. 100 million years. Vivi Vajda from the Lund University in Sweden and Gitte Petersen will tell you how the plants began to inhabit the terrestrial environment, thus paving the way for other life forms living on land. Land plants have managed to adapt to a very different environment, with new challenges and possibilities. Some of the early plants have survived as fossils – whereas others are still alive. Some of these living fossils will be presented in the videos. We will also have a close look at the biggest group of plants – which has evolved in close collaboration with insects, birds and even some mammals – the flowering plants.


6 videos expand


  1. Video: 7.1 Origins and early development of plants: Evolution of plants - Vivi Vajda
  2. Video: 7.2 Origin and early development of plants: Ferns - Vivi Vajda
  3. Video: 7.3 Origin and early development of plants: Conifers - Vivi Vajda
  4. Video: 7.4 The origin and diversification of flowering plants: The Origin - Gitte Petersen
  5. Video: 7.5 The origin and diversification of flowering plants: Diversification of Flowering Plants - Gitte Petersen
  6. Video: 7.6 The origin and diversification of flowering plants: The Impact of Flowering Plants on Earth - Gitte Petersen

Graded: Quiz 7

WEEK 8


The Evolution of Insects and their Role in Terrestrial Ecosystems



In module 8, Lars Vilhelmsen will take a close look at the insects which account for more than 50% of today’s biodiversity and biomass. Part of the story behind the success of the insects is their remarkable adaption to a wide range of environments. Insects mastered powered flight early in their evolution, and also developed highly specialized relationships with land plants almost from the start. Different insects feed on almost everything: various plant parts, nectar, blood from vertebrates, or other insects. Other remarkable types of specializations are found in social insects that act as a single organism, capable of performing highly complex tasks, such as farming.


4 videos expand


  1. Video: 8.1 The evolution of insects and their role in terrestrial ecosystems: Paleozoic insects - Lars Bjørn Vilhelmsen
  2. Video: 8.2 The evolution of insects and their role in terrestrial ecosystems: Paleozoic winged insect - Lars Bjørn Vilhelmsen
  3. Video: 8.3 The evolution of insects and their role in terrestrial ecosystems: The Rise of the Holometabolan Insects - Lars Bjørn Vilhelmsen
  4. Video: 8.4 The evolution of insects and their role in terrestrial ecosystems: Insects and Flowering Plants - Lars Bjørn Vilhelmsen

Graded: Quiz 8

WEEK 9


Colonization of the continents and the Origin of the Dinosaurs and Birds/Mass Extinction Events and Their Causes



In module 9, we will explore how vertebrates colonized dry land. Jesper Milàn will tell you about how this happened and give you examples of some of the first vertebrates that gradually adapted to a life on land. In the following lecture Gilles Cuny will tell you about how the early primitive vertebrates evolved into the highly diverse groups that we see today. He will show you many interesting examples of our distant relatives and discuss many of the processes, which we believe controlled their evolution and diversification. One of the important factors driving evolution is mass extinction events. Gilles will introduce you to the topic and Bent Lindow will give you a detailed look at mass extinction events. What were the causes, what happened and what were the consequences? Many questions remain unanswered but one thing is certain – mass extinctions have had a great impact on the evolution of life on Earth. Without mass extinctions life would have evolved in a completely different way and humans, like most other recent species, would not be here.


8 videos expand


  1. Video: 9.1 Origin of the dinosaurs and birds: When Life Went Ashore – Jesper Milán
  2. Video: 9.2 Origin of the dinosaurs and birds: Mammals versus Dinosaurs - Gilles Cuny
  3. Video: 9.3 Origin of the dinosaurs and birds: The end-Triassic Mass Extinction - Gilles Cuny
  4. Video: 9.4 Origin of the dinosaurs and birds: Birds are Dinosaurs - Gilles Cuny
  5. Video: 9.5 Mass Extinction Events and Their Causes Part 1 - Bent Lindow
  6. Video: 9.6 Mass Extinction Events and Their Causes Part 2 - Bent Lindow
  7. Video: 9.7 Mass Extinction Events and Their Causes Part 3 - Bent Lindow
  8. Video: 9.8 Mass Extinction Events and Their Causes: The Cretaceous-Tertiary Mass Extinction Part 4 - Bent Lindow

Graded: Quiz 9

WEEK 10


Origin of Recent Climate Change / The Molecular Clock



In module 10, we will tell you about two very different topics – recent climate changes and the molecular clock. Michael Houmark will tell you about the changes in global climate over the past 50 million years. During this period the warm temperatures in the Eocene were gradually replaced by the much lower, present day temperatures. Michael will show you how much better records of sea level, temperature, CO2, volcanic activity, and continental drift in the recent past allow us to piece together a detailed picture of these dramatic changes in Earth’s climate. Our records of recent climate change also allow us to better understand the processes controlling the climate on short, medium, and long time scales. Ole Seberg will tell you about the molecular clock. This is a new technique, which has significantly improved our understanding of the evolution of life on our planet. Looking at molecular data of present species, we can not only determine how closely the species are related to each other, we can also estimate the age of their common ancestors.


9 videos expand


  1. Video: 10.1 Origin of Recent climate change: Earth today and yesterday - Michael Houmark-Nielsen
  2. Video: 10.2 Origin of Recent climate change: The changing face of the Earth - Michael Houmark-Nielsen
  3. Video: 10.3 Origin of Recent climate change: The green house world around the North Atlantic - Michael Houmark-Nielsen
  4. Video: 10.4 Origin of Recent climate change: Drifting towards the ice house - Michael Houmark-Nielsen
  5. Video: 10.5 Origin of Recent climate change: On the door step of the ice house - Michael Houmark-Nielsen
  6. Video: 10.6 Origin of Recent climate change: The ice house world of the Pleistocene - Michael Houmark-Nielsen
  7. Video: 10.7 The Molecular Clock: Discovery of the Molecular Clock Part 1 - Ole Seberg
  8. Video: 10.8 The Molecular Clock: Phylogeny and Molecular Data Part 2 - Ole Seberg
  9. Video: 10.9 The Molecular Clock: Explanations Part 3 - Ole Seberg

Graded: Quiz 10

WEEK 11


Primate Origins and Evolution / Human Origins and Evolution



Finally, we have come to the evolution of the primates – the group to which humans belong. Bent Lindow tells you about the evolution of primates, leading up to the early humans. Bent will also introduce you to a web-based exercise called “The Human Animal” (http://snm.ku.dk/english/school_services/human_animal/). In this exercise you will explore skulls of living as well as extinct hominids. Apart from the exercise itself the “Human animal” includes some background reading material and some interesting videos. Included is footage from the dissection of a dead chimpanzee from a Danish Zoo; do not watch this if you think it will make you uncomfortable. In order to do the exercise you need a computer with a mouse (since you need to measure distances in 3D between different parts of the skulls that you will be studying). It will not run on iPads and iPhones. Finally, Tom Gilbert will tell you about how the early modern humans (Homo sapiens) managed to colonize almost every land mass of our planet. Although many details of our own evolution still remain obscure, recent advances in genomics have given us a much better understanding of how extant humans colonized the entire planet after leaving their original home in Africa.


6 videos expand


  1. Video: 11.1 Primate Systematics: Primates, Origins and Evolution Part 1 - Bent Lindow
  2. Video: 11.2 Primate Systematics: Primates, Origins and Evolution Part 2 - Bent Lindow
  3. Video: 11.3 Primate Systematics: Human Evolution Assignment Part 3 - Bent Lindow
  4. Video: 11.4 Human Origins and Evolution: The Global Dispersal of Anatomically Modern Humans - Tom Gilbert
  5. Video: 11.5 Human Origins and Evolution: Leaving Africa - Tom Gilbert
  6. Video: 11.6 Human Origins and Evolution: Multiple dispersals from Africa - Tom Gilbert

Graded: Quiz 11

WEEK 12


Modern Diversity



In the last set of lectures we will look at the modern biodiversity. There is an enormous difference between the biodiversity of different types of habitats on our planet – from the equator to the arctic, from deserts to rainforests, and from isolated islands like the Galapagos to large continents. Jon Fjeldså will take you on a trip around the planet and give you many interesting examples of these variations. He will explain how we can use them to get a better understanding of how evolution works. This concludes the Origins course. Thank you for following it, we hope it has enhanced your understanding of how life evolved and diversified on our planet, and that it will inspire you to see natural phenomena in a new light.


8 videos expand


  1. Video: 12.1 Modern diversity: Part 1 - Jon Fjeldså
  2. Video: 12.2 Modern diversity: Part 2 - Jon Fjeldså
  3. Video: 12.3 Modern diversity: Part 3 - Jon Fjeldså
  4. Video: 12.4 Modern diversity: Part 4 - Jon Fjeldså
  5. Video: 12.5 Modern diversity: Part 5 - Jon Fjeldså
  6. Video: 12.6 Modern diversity: Part 6 - Jon Fjeldså
  7. Video: 12.7 Modern diversity: Part 7 - Jon Fjeldså
  8. Video: 12.8 Modern diversity: Part 8 - Jon Fjeldså

Graded: Quiz 12

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