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The cosmos in a capsule

The place we call home had an inauspicious start.

"In its infancy, Earth was a primeval hell, a lifeless planet bombarded by massive asteroids and comets," reports Neil deGrasse Tyson, who goes on to muse: "How did it change from a raging inferno to a place we all know and love?"

That's a central issue occupying Origins, the lively, four-part NOVA miniseries for which Tyson serves as tour guide from the beginning of time.

Airing on PBS Tuesday and Wednesday from 8 to 10 p.m., Origins revisits Earth during its unpromising first billion years, and returns, even earlier, for the event that some believe started it all: the big bang.

Origins explores how, against heavy odds, life on Earth began (possibly crash-landing here from outer space). And it investigates whether today life exists anywhere else (maybe on one of the more than 100 newly discovered planets that lie beyond our solar system).

Origins poses ancient, maybe obvious questions. But hardly idle ones, says Tyson, a leading astrophysicist and the director of New York's Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.

"Only when you know how something is born can you truly understand what has happened to it since then," he says during a recent interview _ not to mention its prospects for the future.

A subtitle for Origins, says Tyson, could well have been "The Search for Ourselves in the Cosmos." And _ flash! _ there is new hope for easing our identity crisis, thanks to a growing collaboration across scientific disciplines.

Among the many scientists he consults in telling the story of Origins are some whose careers are devoted to hybrid specialties "that I hadn't even dreamed of," Tyson says with evident amazement.

Example: Biogeology.

"Historically, biologists accept that life thrives here on Earth's surface. But once we started finding life thriving elsewhere" _ like the hardy microbes recovered on Origins from rocks miles underground _ "it was clear that these life forms owed their existence to peculiarities in the geology of the earth."

Tyson views the collaborative process that yields a cross-cultural field like biogeology as a sort of intellectual liberation. And he points out that, oddly enough, it's a throwback to three or four centuries ago, when scientists (or "natural philosophers") remained generalists.

With increased specialization, says Tyson, came a range of priorities and sets of questions:

Astrophysicists asked, "How did the universe get here?" Biologists asked, "How did life begin?" Geologists asked, "How did Earth begin?" Physicists asked, "What is the origin of the elements?"

"But today," says Tyson, "science in all of its disciplines has advanced to the point that we can now come back together, hold hands, sing Kumbaya, and ask the same question: "How did all of this get here?' To answer that question, we have to be in the same room."

He chuckles. "It sounds almost too New Age-y to be true."

Tyson, a native New Yorker whose passion for the stars was sparked as a child by a visit to the planetarium where he's now boss, has a gift for explaining vast or abstruse ideas in down-to-earth terms even a child can grasp.

When he mentions that there are 100-billion stars in our galaxy, he makes that hard-to-fathom figure relatable by adding, "McDonald's has sold about 100-billion hamburgers." And should someone ask if space exploration is worth the price, Tyson has a ready response: Americans spend more on lip balm than NASA is spending on the current Saturn mission.

So just one helpful device in Origins is Tyson's use of a 24-hour clock to represent Earth's 4.5-billion-year life. (By this condensed measure, humans first got their foothold on Earth only 30 seconds ago.)

And during the final chapter of Origins, titled "Back to the Beginning," Tyson even lets his viewers get a peek at the big bang, right there in their living room.

For anyone with a TV set that receives its signals through the airwaves, not by cable, "All you need to do is change the channel until you come between two stations," he says. Most of the resulting static represents stray radio waves. "But amazingly, about 1 percent of the snow and noise comes from microwaves produced in the big bang itself" _ live, from 13-billion years ago.

"Right now," says Tyson, "we're all eavesdropping on the birth pangs of the cosmos."

And Origins covers plenty of ground after that.