How To Build A Universe, with Richard Hammond

Mama Fisi
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Top Gear's Richard Hammond's at it again, this time using his magic tower to construct a universe in which to place the Earth-like planet he built in his previous show, "How To Build A Planet."

There's an old saying that "God is an Englishman," and if this is true, than I would like to believe He's a good bit like Richard Hammond, who is cheerful, enthusiastic, and who explains complex cosmological principles in an easy to understand style, accompanied by eye-popping CGI effects (at least I think they're CGI.... Wink)

Starting with the Big Bang, which he equates with the rapid inflation of a hot-air balloon rather than a cataclysmic explosion such as the name would imply, Hammond then takes us to a lab in England where stars are made by compressing hydrogen until it ignites, which then creates helium and other elements necessary for planet creation.  And when these proto-stars go nova, they hurl out their elements into the void, where they swirl around in nebulous clouds until new stars coalesce and begin forming solar systems.

Once he gets the orbit of Jupiter stabilized by using the Sun to sweep away all the excess detritus that was slowing the first gas giant down and pulling it in toward the sun--and blowing up a rock with a giant magnifying lens as an example of how this would happen--Hammond then goes about finding the sweet spot for his planet, where the essential water is neither vaporized or frozen.  Water, of course, is the key ingredient for life, and another important consideration is to have a planet big enough to have enough gravity to hold onto an atmosphere, which in turn keeps the water in place.

This program must have been amazing amounts of fun to do, and Hammond takes us along for the ride as he rolls across a simulated Martian landscape in a NASA rover, blasts off in an Orion simulator that you need a degree in contortionism to climb into, descends a mile under the surface of the Earth to view a dark matter detector, watches a star spark into existence, and learns that even in a caustic, lightless, anoxic lake deep underground, bacteria can live on nothing more than the minerals dissolved from the rock of the cave.

And of course, there's the special effects.  They're really top notch, blending seamlessly into the live-action sequences, until you almost believe Hammond is truly playing Sorcerer's Apprentice with stars atop some miles-high tower.

And Hammond, with his usual self-effacing charm, admits to feeling a bit scared when he's about to witness the ignition of a star, or trying to negotiate a roller-derby track to illustrate how the early planets sorted themselves out.  This segment is particularly amusing if you're a fan of Top Gear, where Hammond steers high-powered supercars around the track at nearly break-neck speeds (and he almost did break his neck in real life in one accident) and yet he has to be supported by two roller derby babes because he can't manage his skates.   

What's also refreshing is the overall tone of the series.  While many, if not most, science programs today are trying to scare people with dire predictions of what the future might hold in store for us, "How To Build A Universe" is educational without being didactic, and entertaining without pandering to the lowest common denominator.  Hammond's upbeat style buoys the viewer along through a wonderland of cosmic grandeur, and the most downbeat comment I heard him make regarded the placement of the Earth--"If things weren't exactly right, we wouldn't be here."  But it isn't really downbeat at all, it's one man marvelling at the amazing combination of factors that allowed us to be able to contemplate the universe around us.