You'd think explaining the beginnings of the universe would be enough for astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. But no: In "Origins," a new book and public-TV miniseries, the director of New York's Hayden Planetarium goes beyond the Big Bang to take on the rise of the solar system, life and intelligence as well.
Any one of those subjects is worthy of being covered in a documentary series at least as ambitious as "Origins," which premieres Tuesday and Wednesday on PBS. And indeed they have been, in productions ranging from "Evolution" to "Life Beyond Earth" to the granddaddy of them all, Carl Sagan's "Cosmos."
So why is Tyson tying all these cosmic subjects together in a four-hour package? He says that's the very point he's trying to bring home.
"Only in the last five years have there been the right kinds of advances in the right kinds of fields to be able to do a miniseries on origins," he told MSNBC.com. "This is 'Origins' with a big O, so it's not just origins of human beings. This is origins of the whole shebang."
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Putting together the puzzle
Tyson shows how scientists are blending astrophysics, geology, chemistry, biology and even paleontology to knit together insights about the structure of the universe, the creation of planets and the foundations of life itself.
Video: Prologue to ‘Origins’ "While these topics have historically been studied in pieces, they have not until recently been put together in one sweeping story that connects us through time and space to the rest of the universe. And that's the story we tell," he said.
In the series' closing scenes, astronomer Sandra Faber of the University of California at Santa Cruz says the story could serve as a "a new version of Genesis" for the scientific age. Tyson realizes there's something deeply spiritual — and potentially controversial — about such claims. But he contends that modern science and age-old religion can co-exist.
"For those who are religious fundamentalists, who would assert that among other things the universe is 10,000 years old, there's not much place to have a conversation, because those people would claim that the Bible can be used as a science textbook," he said. "But that's not the majority. The majority of religious people take all these discoveries to heart and see them as greater evidence of the glory and majesty of God's creation, and have no problems with it."
The universe in four acts
In the book and in the TV series (check local listings for air times), Tyson doesn't shrink from explaining the nitty-gritty details behind cosmic background radiation , the search for extrasolar planets , extremophile biology and other frontiers in the quest for origins.
The first hour focuses on the latest theories about the formation of the solar system, showing why scientists think a series of early catastrophes — including an interplanetary collision that led to the moon's creation — set the stage for conditions unusually conducive to life's development.
The biologists get their say in the second hour, which focuses on how Earth's chemistry might have given rise to the complex molecules required for living organisms. In the third hour, Tyson explores the rise of intelligence on Earth as well as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The fourth hour goes back to the very beginning, showing how scientists have fleshed out theories about the universe's earliest moments — and have found the chemicals required for life in distant galaxies and neighboring worlds.
Tyson told MSNBC.com that the questions about life beyond Earth represent a gap in the scientific puzzle that is crying out to be filled in.
"The next development we can all look forward to is the discovery of life, or evidence of past life, either on Mars or my favorite target, Europa . That's what I would look forward to in the next decade or two," he said. "But I didn't want to wait that long before we made the series."
The road ahead in space
The miniseries hasn't been the only project on Tyson's plate: In addition to directing the planetarium, he served on the President's Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy. Tyson sees a clear link between NASA's future and the big picture outlined in "Origins."
"If we are going to think of ourselves as a spacefaring nation and knowingly take the risks involved, then those risks had better be worth it," he said. "And what does 'worth it' mean? It better be, 'Wow, we are discovering a new place, landing on a new planet.' You don't want to bring on those risks simply by driving around the block, or going where hundreds have gone before."
Tyson believes reinvigorating the space effort will produce spin-offs to improve everyday life on earth, and inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers — a work force the country sorely needs.
"Most people don't realize that the American aerospace industry has lost half a million jobs in the last 15 years," he said. "You can't blame that on one president or another. It's just symptomatic of the absence of investment in our own frontier that we pioneered."
But why space science specifically?
"There is some aspect of studying the universe that does affect everyday life. For example, wouldn't you want to know when the next asteroid is going to hit?" he said.
Even the pure wonder surrounding the latest image from the Hubble Space Telescope, or the latest theory on black holes, serves a deeper purpose, Tyson argued.
"Perhaps there's something deeply encoded within us genetically as human beings, that forces us to ask the question 'What is my place in the universe? How did it all get here?'" he said. "I bet there's not a single person who hasn't looked up into the night sky and thought those very same questions, unprompted, not in fulfillment of a homework assignment — just by looking up.
"And so to not look for the answers to those questions is to deny the most fundamental aspect of human curiosity."
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