Exploring our understanding of the origins of matter and life 

Module details

  • Offered to 2nd Year students in Autumn Term - Mondays 16:00-18:00
  • Offered to 3rd Year students in Spring Term - Thursdays 16:00-18:00
  • Planned delivery: Online - Live
  • 1-term module worth 5 ECTS
  • Available to eligible students as part of I-Explore

Over the last 20 to 50 years there have been huge advances in our knowledge of our origins. In physics and astronomy we now know the history of the universe and the processes that drive it back to the very first tiny fractions of a second after the Big Bang. We have learnt how stars and planets form and have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars. Life is being sought on these planets and on planets in our own Solar System, and we are beginning to understand the processes behind the origin of life. This module will allow you to examine the current scientific view of the origin of the Earth, the universe, matter and life, as well as the evidence upon which these views are based. The course also covers the development of these views in different cultures and areas of uncertainty. 

Through team-based and independent research you will learn to explain the status and results of scientific research into origins questions, and to critically evaluate the scientific evidence for these conclusions. You will also consider where results and conclusions are uncertain, and where our knowledge is currently limited, as well as research an unfamiliar topic, communicating the results of this research to a non-specialist audience. By the end of the module, you should also be able to discuss the diversity of cultural approaches to origins questions. 


Learning outcomes

By the end of this module, you will better be able to: 

  • Explain the current status and results of scientific research into origins questions, and critically evaluate the scientific evidence that supports these conclusions, taking into account where results and conclusions are uncertain, and where our knowledge is currently limited 
  • Work independently and in multidisciplinary small groups to research an unfamiliar topic using review papers, textbooks, popular texts and articles, to communicate the results of this research to a non-specialist audience 
  • Discuss the diversity of cultural approaches to origins questions and reflect on how their disciplinary and cultural backgrounds influence their approach to these origins questions 

Indicative core content

The key question addressed by this module is what is the origin of the world and universe around us? This will be broken up into subtopics as follows: what is the origin of matter and the universe? What is the origin of the stars and planets? What is the origin of life? 

Specific subtopics that may be the subject of student presentations or questions include: 

  • Experimental basis of quantum mechanics 
  • Fundamental particles 
  • Modern particle experiments 
  • Historical conceptions of matter 
  • The key observations of cosmology 
  • The Big Bang, History of the universe 
  • The missing bits: dark matter & dark energy 
  • Origin stories of the world 
  • The nature of stars 
  • Planets in the Solar System – terrestrial and gas giant 
  • Searches for Exoplanets 
  • Star and planet formation 
  • Habitable planets 
  • Astronomy before the telescope 
  • What is life? 
  • History of life on earth 
  • Scientific scenarios for the origin of life 
  • The search for life elsewhere 
  • The possibility of & search for extraterrestrial intelligence 

Learning and teaching approach

There will be an introductory talk and online discussion session on each of the topics on the course, followed by a 2 - week period to study the topic in groups, or independently as appropriate. This will be followed by: 

  • Online workshop sessions 
  • Online group presentations 
  • Online test 

Feedback on presentations will be provided after the presentation sessions and through written feedback forms filled out by students and course leaders. Feedback will also be available during the workshop sessions, and peer feedback from the groups will be available during the team learning stage of the online tests and during the final reflective session. 



  • Group presentation about an Origins subtopic (45%) 
  • Contribution to reflective exercise at end of course (10%) 


  • Three online multiple-choice quizzes (each worth 15%) on each of the three parts of the course 

Key information

  • Requirements: It is compulsory to take an I-Explore module during your degree (you’ll take an I-Explore module in either your 2nd or 3rd year, depending on your department). You are expected to attend all classes and undertake approximately 105 hours of independent study in total during the module. Independent study includes for example reading and preparation for classes, researching and writing coursework assignments, project work and preparing for other assessments 
  • I-Explore modules are worth 5 ECTS credit towards your degree; to receive these you will have to pass the module. The numerical mark that you obtain will not be included in the calculation of your final degree result, but it will appear on your transcript  
  • This module is designed as an undergraduate Level 6 course 
  • This module is offered by the Department of Physics, the Department of Life Sciences, and the Department of Earth Science and Engineering