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Science show lets Hamster run free

Richard Hammond loves speed. This, remember, is the man who came close to dying when a jet-powered dragster he was driving for an item on Top Gear blew a tyre while tearing along at 288mph.

In the three-part Invisible Worlds, however, he slows things down to a crawl in order to show us the everyday wonders of the world that the human eye can't see.

It takes our brains 150 milliseconds to process what we see. If things happen any faster than that -- which they do, all around us, every day -- they might as well not be happening at all, because our visual equipment simply doesn't work fast enough to register them.

But when filmed with superfast cameras and played back a few hundred, or even a few thousand, times slower than normal, whole new vistas open up. And they're breathtaking to look at.

In Rapid City, Dakota, which is in the middle of the lightning belt and routinely subject to terrifying electrical storms, Hammond discovered that lightning can travel up as well as down. The cameras revealed fingers of lightning forking towards the ground, rebounding off TV masts and then shooting back up to the heavens.

Even more jaw-dropping were the so-called "sprites": columns of lightning that can be seen only from the window of a jet plane flying at the very edge of space. Viewed at normal speed, they're fleeting flashes; when slowed down, they become eerie, ghostly apparitions that magically materialise out of the darkness.

Naturally, Hammond being Hammond, there had to be a few big bangs. He blew 20,000 tons of rock out of a cliff-face and exploded a large container of gunpowder -- but only to show us how a shockwave ripples outwards, turning the air around it into a natural lens that distorts the landscape in the background.

These were the big spectacles; most impressive of all was the footage of the micro-happenings we barely pay any attention to -- such as raindrops falling from the sky. Most of us imagine them to be teardrop-shaped. In fact, they flatten and then swell into the shape of hamburgers before exploding in a puff of mist.

A hummingbird slowed down 300 times and hovering at a flower is a startling sight. A bumble bee in flight, on the other hand, is comical, though no less beautiful to watch.

One of nature's least aerodynamic creations, it has no right to be in the air at all; yet somehow it pulls it off, swerving awkwardly between flowers like a wayward helicopter, its legs flailing wildly and its ridiculously tiny wings beating and twisting at a rate of 20 times a second.

The diminutive Hammond is sometimes barely visible to the naked eye when sandwiched between the boorish Jeremy Clarkson and the bear-like James May on Top Gear. But when the BBC lets "The Hamster", as the other two call him, off the wheel, he makes intelligent TV.

He might not be David Attenborough, but Invisible Worlds lives up to the philosophy of John Reith, the very first director-general of the BBC: educate, inform, entertain.

Stacey's Stars

Richard Hammond's Invisible Worlds ****