The Origins Umbrella

Origins Book Cover
Origins, Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution. "a galvanizing tour of the cosmos revealing what the universe has been up to while turning part of itself into us." Cover Credit: Norton

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and also a Visiting Research Scientist at Princeton University’s Department of Astrophysics. He writes a monthly column called "Universe" for Natural History magazine, and is the author of several books, including "One Universe: At Home in the Cosmos" and "The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures in an Urban Environment".

His most recent project is the NOVA four-part series, "Origins." As host of the PBS miniseries, Tyson guides viewers on a journey into the mysteries of the universe and the origin of life itself.

In this interview with Astrobiology Magazine editor Leslie Mullen, Tyson describes the origin and evolution of "Origins."

Astrobiology Magazine (AM): Could you describe the process of how the NOVA "Origins" TV series and companion book came about?

Neil de Grasse Tyson (NT): If we go back to the beginning, we can trace the origin of "Origins" to some efforts by NASA to create a new funding umbrella that didn’t have much precedent in the portfolio of NASA projects. This "Origins" umbrella would primarily bring together biologists and astrophysicists, but of course others would join in as time went on.

Great work was already being done in cosmology, where we’d partnered up with particle physicists to understand the origin and evolution of the universe. But then it came time to understand the origins of other things, like the solar system and life, and NASA came to realize it might be uniquely positioned to make a research statement about that.

This happened in the mid-1990s. Shortly after that, Tom Levenson, a TV producer with whom I had worked before, saw this emerging science of origins take hold, yet there was not much public awareness. He decided the topic was right for a TV series, and then he and a fellow producer contacted me as someone who might host the series and act as the on-camera interpreter of all these different sciences.

Dynamic Neil deGrasse Tyson, on the move with a big idea in mind: how did life originate on Earth? Credit: PBS

When he approached me in the late 1990s, I was too busy with the reconstruction of the Hayden Planetarium, the facility that is now known as the Rose Center for Earth and Space, itself containing the rebuilt Hayden Planetarium. But he was still fund-raising for the project, which in fact would take him several more years. By 2001, he finally got enough money and finally I had enough time, and so we got together.

Meanwhile, over those several years, there were certain key developments in cosmology and in other branches of origin science. Those developments gave the final product a level of enrichment that it could not have had if we’d completed it in the 1990s.

AM: I was really amazed, in the TV program, how many well-known names in astrobiology were interviewed. People like Andrew Knoll, Chris McKay, Peter Ward…

NT: Oh yeah, we got top people! One of the challenges of the program was to bring together sciences that people had previously imagined to be completely distinct from one another.

AM: It must have been difficult to interview all these people in such diverse fields, and then somehow fit it all together.

NT: Well, we wanted the viewer to feel the frontier of origin science, and to do that you have to get it out of the hearts of those at work on that research frontier. That’s why we have the biologist, the chemist, the astrophysicist, the particle physicist, the paleontologist, the geologist. It’s the sum of these frontiers that makes the origin story continuous, taking us from the Big Bang right on up through modern humans.

The departing Galileo probe took the Earth-moon system in silhouette.
Credit: NASA/Galileo

You know, people didn’t begin calling themselves "astrobiologists" until the mid-1990s. Now there are even people who call themselves "astrochemists" and "biogeologists." The earliest specialists that we had grown accustomed to in the 1990s were the "planetary geologists," but even then the field was kind of new. One didn’t even think of them as a real specialty until the Pathfinder mission to Mars in 1997.

That particular field came of age with the recent Spirit and Opportunity Missions. These Mars probes are basically roving geologists. They’re not just single instruments digging into the nearby soils. They’re wandering the countryside with the robotic equivalent of a geologist’s hammer – the RAT drill. So we now have jobs for geologists on other planets.

One of the things we try to celebrate – not only in the series but also in the companion book – is the coming together of these sciences that have so long been considered separate and distinct. We bring them together to not only pose questions, but to try to answer questions that are otherwise unapproachable within the separate fields.

AM: Do you think that astrobiologists are especially suited to public discussions of science, since they’re used to presenting their research across disciplines, explaining it to people from different fields?

Sagan with Viking Lander
Sagan with mock-up of the Viking Mars lander, from the popular television series.

NT: There are a couple of factors, and that’s one of them. But the interest of the general public puts the astrobiologists in situations where they need to develop that proverbial sound bite. There’s no denying the public curiosity and fascination with the search for life in the universe. This fact elevates certain researchers to the role of popularizer, even if they hadn’t started the day intending to become one.

AM: That brings me to my next question, actually, which is, what sort of response has the series generated among the general public?

NT: I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the e-mails I’ve been getting, starting from the initial premier broadcast and continuing on, as PBS repeats the show. The e-mails have been very positive, and there have been many flattering comparisons to Carl Sagan’s "Cosmos" in terms of how enlightened they felt for having seen the series. So I felt very good about that.

It meant that this effort – the work of producers, directors, writers and set designers, as well as my colleagues in astrophysics and my cross disciplinary colleagues in other fields – was all able to come together as one coherent and sensible project. Something this ambitious doesn’t always come out as being greater than the sum of its parts.

AM: Do you see a difference in how the general public responds versus how other scientists have been responding to it?

NT: The science community has been very happy with the level of science communicated in the series. There’s always the risk that you might dumb it down too low in an effort to reach a broad public audience. There are plenty of people out there who are intelligent and inquisitive, and even if they don’t know the substance they’re smart enough to pick it up on the fly. You don’t want to make the mistake of talking down to them.

Star field
In a universe brimming with stars, could it be true that life exists in one place and nowhere else?
Credit: NASA/ STScI/ ESA

Many of my colleagues saw the series as a valuable contribution to the field as well as to the public’s curiosity, because it could ultimately translate into public support for the science.

AM: I’ve heard that scientists used to laugh Carl Sagan out of meetings because he was a popularizer of science. Now that attitude seems to have completely turned around 180 degrees.

NT: I’ve heard the same stories. But his legacy is undeniable. While his pioneering steps created some animosity within the professional community, today that same community, or at least the same astrophysicist community, has become sensitized to the value of that kind of investment of time. Not only for the future funding of the field, but for the public’s appreciation of for the work we all do.

AM: Basically getting people excited about it.

NT: Yes. If you can’t get someone excited about your life’s passion then you may as well go home.

Related Web Pages

A Perfect World I: Tyson
The Origin of Life on Earth: Book excerpt
The Search for Ourselves in the Cosmos: Book excerpt
Tyson and Planetary Society
Tyson Testimony to Congress on Astrobiology
The Bigger Picture
What Would a Martian Drive?
Three Tough Questions