Press Release

Stephanie Stone (415) 379-5121
Andrew Ng (415) 379-5123


Narrated by Jodie Foster, the second all-digital show produced by
the California Academy of Sciences is a high-speed ride through the history of life

» Watch the trailer

» Update: Life wins award at 2011 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival

Life: A Cosmic StorySAN FRANCISCO (October 5, 2010) — How did life on Earth begin? This tantalizing question forms the basis of Morrison Planetarium's upcoming show, Life: A Cosmic Story, which will premiere on November 6, 2010. Located inside the California Academy of Sciences, the Morrison has transported audiences to the far reaches of the Universe and back since its opening in 2008. Like the inaugural show Fragile Planet, Life takes audiences on an immersive, all-digital journey, featuring visualizations based on the latest scientific data.

"The show's core concept is that all life on Earth is related, having evolved from a common ancestor," says Ryan Wyatt, Director of Morrison Planetarium and Science Visualization. "Taking an even longer view, we see that life's origins begin with dark matter and the first stars—our pedigree is actually 13.7 billion years in the making."

Narrated by two-time Academy Award winner Jodie Foster, Life begins in a grove of towering redwoods, majestic emblems of Northern California. From there, the audience "shrinks" dramatically as it enters a single redwood leaf and then a redwood cell, learning that despite their unique appearance, redwoods are composed of the same basic molecules as all other organisms on Earth. After this opening statement of shared ancestry, the audience launches on a journey through time, witnessing key events since the Big Bang that set the stage for life. The first stars ignite, galaxies coalesce, and entire worlds take shape. On the early Earth, two scenarios for the dawn of life are presented—one near a turbulent, deep-sea hydrothermal vent, and the other in a primordial "hot puddle" on a volcanic island. From these microscopic beginnings, life transformed the entire Earth as it evolved and diversified: filling the atmosphere with oxygen, turning the continents green, and altering global climate patterns. The 25-minute show ends with a review of geological evidence and the connectedness of all living things on Earth.

To ensure that the show is as scientifically accurate and up-to-date as possible, the Academy drew on the expertise of several advisers who are leaders in their fields:

Dr. Jill Tarter, Director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, consulted on the show with her extensive knowledge of astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life. Tarter provided the real-life inspiration for Jodie Foster's character in the 1997 film Contact, and she is also a Fellow and Trustee of the California Academy of Sciences.

Three scientists from the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) in Mountain View provided expertise as well: Dr. Carl Pilcher, Director of NAI; Dr. David Des Marais, Principal Investigator of NAI's Ames Research Center team; and Dr. Tori Hoehler, Research Scientist with the NAI Ames team. Their collective research efforts focus on the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the Universe. Des Marais, who is heavily involved in the current Mars missions, gave insight into the possibility of life on Earth's next-door neighbor. Pilcher, Des Marais, and Hoehler are all Fellows of the Academy.

Dr. David Deamer of the University of California, Santa Cruz, consulted on the chemical origins of life, especially for the "hot puddle" scenario depicted in the show.

The Academy also drew on its own scientists to ensure that even the tiniest details were accurate: botanically sound depictions of the redwood leaf and leaf interior; a realistic computer-generated ant along with its zig-zag walking pattern; and an appropriate selection of birdsongs for the redwood grove, taken from recordings made by former Academy curator Luis Baptista.

To produce the show's complex imagery, the Academy's Visualization Studio collaborated with Stanford University and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. In May 2010, the Academy's Visualization Studio was one of four recipients of the international FullDome Award of Excellence for its inaugural production Fragile Planet. The collective experience of its staff in the visual effects industry totals more than 120 years, including work at Industrial Light & Magic, Pixar, and Lucasfilm Animation.

Life: A Cosmic Story will play 7-10 times every day in Morrison Planetarium through late 2011. The Benjamin Dean Astronomy Lectures in December 2010, January 2011, and February 2011 at the Academy will provide in-depth discussions of topics covered in the show. Check for dates and speakers.