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Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution

Distributed by WGBH Boston, 125 Western Avenue, Boston, MA 02134; 617-300-2000
Produced by Thomas Levinson
Written, hosted and narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson
VHS and DVD, color, 240 min.
Jr. High - Adult
Evolution, Science, Cosmology

Reviewed by Barbara Butler, University of Oregon Institute of Marine Biology

Date Entered: 2/10/2005

This ambitious series first aired on WGBH/PBS in September 2004 and is based on the book Origins by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. Origins introduces viewers to some of the newest theories and research in cosmology in four one-hour segments: Earth is Born describes the creation of Earth and, for the sake of perspective, condenses our 4.5 billion year history to a 24-hour day; How Life Began examines the conditions on early Earth and looks for some modern day analogs in challenging environments such as deep-sea hydrothermal vents, acidic caves and deep mine shafts; Where Are the Aliens focuses outward on the quest to identify intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy; and Back to the Beginning describes the early cosmology research on which our current understanding is built. DVD users will have access to a printable teachers guide and a link to the NOVA website, but regrettably, not a deep link to the Origins site itself.

The frenetic introduction and repetitious use of melodramatic graphics are distracting. Interviews with scientists are interspersed with computer animation and it is presumptive that theories are first introduced as such, but later implied to be fact. Material on the Origins website is very helpful in making the information in the video more understandable to the lay person. The fourth segment of the series is by far the best. It offers a wonderful glimpse of how serendipitous discoveries add to our scientific knowledge, but without relying on sensational graphics. Adult viewers may be put off by the overly dramatic repeated representation of Earth as a planet under siege. However, this series as well as the NOVA Origins website are packed with a great deal of information and will be a valuable resource to junior high teachers.

Origins is appropriate for public and school libraries and is recommended for its scientific content, but with some reservations about its presentation. The popular treatment of cosmology may also be seen in Dr. Tysonís 2003 release titled My Favorite Universe and Brian Greeneís The Elegant Universe, a three-hour NOVA production aired on WGBH/Boston in 2003.