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University of Colorado Boulder

Deep Time: Discovering an Ancient Earth

University of Colorado Boulder via Coursera


Ever since our ancestors ventured onto the African savanna, human beings have searched, explored, and wondered about the world. Nowadays, and certainly for most, science is the vehicle that takes us along a path towards understanding nature. It can bring us from sub-atomic realms to the most distant galaxies. Largely through the discipline of geology, science allows us to push back the mists of time and peer into a past measured in billions of years, and aptly referred to as “Deep Time.” Climb on board! This is a journey of discovery—we'll learn about the origins of science and geology itself, to our planet’s oceans, atmosphere, and crust. The focus then turns to how geologists have probed the rise and fall of the Rocky Mountains, and we conclude by considering not only the power of science but also acknowledging its inherent price and responsibility. Certificate earners demonstrate proficiency through a few short assessments and discussion prompts and are prepared to teach or apply the material.


  • Science and Geology in Search of Deep Time
    • We might well be the first species to ask, and even begin to answer, some big questions about the world around us: Who are we? Where are we? and When are we? Geology joins some heavy hitters, like evolutionary biology and cosmology, when it comes to providing major insights, particularly into the latter question.This first module begins with a look at science in general, how it works and where it came from. We then address the historical beginnings of a “science of the earth” (geology) and how, from its very inception, it pointed towards an earth of immense age, the business of Deep Time. The module wraps up with an introduction to the assessment of rock and mineral age determination using both qualitative and isotopic methods.
  • Origins: Stars to Planets, Continents, Oceans, and Atmospheres
    • The power of science is no better exemplified than through its ability to peer into the most remote depths of Deep Time. In this second module we take a cursory “highlight trip” through a host of very ancient and key origins, from the universe itself to stars and planets, and then to Earth’s first oceans, atmosphere, crust, and life. We take a literal deep dive into the underpinnings of the North American continent, the so-called Precambrian basement. Using rock and mineral analysis, radiometric dating, seismology, and the treasure trove of deep-earth materials brought to the surface by kimberlitic “diamond-pipe” eruptions, geologists have put together an understanding of how North America, and continents in general, grow through time.
  • Seas and Ancient Mountains of North America
    • We tackle the story of North America, as it emerges from the Precambrian into the Phanerozoic Eon (i.e., Paleozoic, Mesozoic, Cenozoic Eras). The story is read from the book of rock layers, and as such we review some of the language of geology—rocks and the rock-cycle. We VISIT (via both lecture and virtual-video-field trip) the puzzling yet pervasive Great Unconformity, an enormous gap in the rock record that sits directly below the first strata with shell fossils. We consider the marine waters that washed onto and off the land, as climate and tectonics drove changes in sea-level. Lastly, as the Pangea Super-Continent coalesced in the Late Paleozoic, we see the rise of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. Note: This module contains the first two of three Video Field Trip Outings to Flagstaff Mountain, near Boulder, Colorado.
  • The Rise of the Modern Rocky Mountains
    • Moving into the final phase of Earth history in the Rocky Mountains, the Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras, the geological record provides greater resolution and reveals, with rather exceptional detail, the location and timing of mountain uplifts, ocean incursions, changing climate, and the fossil record. The modern Rocky Mountains turn out to be a consequence of uplift, erosion, and then renewed uplift with a final sculpting via glacial ice. We conclude by coming full circle, back to science itself— recognizing it as more than simply a tool for reconstructing nature and the past, but also carrying a charge of responsibility for assessing truth and evaluating claims within our own lives and the present world. Note: This module begins with the third and final Video Field Trip Outing to Flagstaff Mountain, near Boulder, Colorado.

Taught by

Alan Lester


4.8 rating at Coursera based on 16 ratings

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