TV presenter Richard Hammond on how the human race is finally catching up with Mother Nature's best
In his new series, Miracles of Nature, Richard Hammond travelled the world to seek out the extraordinary super powers of the animal kingdom and the equally extraordinary way they have been replicated by humans to solve very particular problems. He talks to Peter Moore about the amazing things he saw, and the fears he conquered to bring them to you.
Where did your travels take you over the course of making this series?
We went to America to film in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, which is fabulous. Beautiful early mornings, which was lucky, because we always seemed to have to be there around five in the morning. So lots of crisp, cold desert mornings.
We were in Botswana. I absolutely adore Botswana. I’ve travelled a lot in Africa and Botswana is a jewel of a place to visit. Watching elephants, zebras and giraffes, working with them.
So yeah, a lot around Africa, a lot around the US, a lot around the UK and bits and pieces around Europe.
Your TV shows always seem to take you all over the world – Top Gear, Planet Earth Live, even Total Wipeout. Although, I can never tell if you’re in Argentina or back in the studio with that one.
I’ve been to Argentina once. There wasn’t a lot of travel in that gig. (laughing)
Is travel an enjoyable part of what you do or is it just part of the job?
It’s weird. This year I’ve spent three months in the States, three months in Africa and a month and a half to two months knocking around Europe. It’s a lot of travel. So I must enjoy it or I wouldn’t do that much, would I?
That said, it’s always difficult to explain to someone why I’m in a strop on a Monday morning when once again I’m dragging my suitcase out the front door and setting off for Heathrow to go off to Africa, America or wherever. I do appreciate it. But there are times when it’s just ‘the office’.
Do you get to see much of a place when you're travelling?
Actually, travelling with work is a wonderful way of seeing places because I’m meeting people, meeting people for real. I’m not there as a tourist. Travel isn’t actually what we’re there to do. I’m there to look at whatever it may be, whether that’s a harp seal or an elephant or a centrifuge machine, whatever we’ve gone there to look at. We’re talking to them about that, and in that context, it’s a much richer experience and a great way to travel.
Let’s talk about Miracles of Nature. Humans have been getting inspiration from the natural world since time began. But in the past decade or so, we seem to be entering a kind of golden age for biometrics. Why do you think that is?
Biometrics has always been there, in a simple copying sense, but as we start finessing things, we’re finding more clever solutions around us. We are inevitably just getting closer to those same solutions that have been found through the process of evolution over millions of years. It goes to prove either how clever we are, or how inevitable the process is.
If you’re trying to fly, see, stay dry, detect things, whatever it is you want to do, the odds are that nature has spent several million years trying to do the same thing. Maybe it’s a measure of how good we’ve been getting in that we’ve been slowly arriving at similar solutions and realised, ‘hang on, we can copy.’
What surprised you more? The abilities animals have or the way humans have adapted and used them?
It was more the similarity in the problems and issues. I was surprised by the sensitivity of a seals whiskers, but then amazed by the young cyclist who had lost his sight a couple of years back and now rides his mountain bike down hill, through woods, using echo location like a bat. That really made me sit up and think.
What were some of the other ingenious applications of nature’s miracles that you came across?
The exoskeleton at the end of one of the later episodes, where the man who had lost use of his legs was fitted with, in effect, an exoskeleton that was working and functioning. That moved me because, obviously, you sympathise, you empathise with someone who has lost the use of their legs.
But I think in every story, from the hydrophobic material coated through to the use of infrasonic sound, copying an elephant, there was something to be amazed by. The use of the giraffe suit, the moderating of pressures around the body. I hope everyone finds each one of them as interesting as I did.
Over the course of the series, you did a number of stunts to illustrate these applications. Which did you find was the most challenging one?
In order to see how a vulture flies, we flew with them – in a paraglider. It was basically a parachute that you can fly, if you will. So I had to leap off a bloody big cliff in Africa and I was terrified. I thought that once I took the leap, literally, the fear would go. But it didn’t. It stayed. Throughout the whole flight. I hated it.
Unfortunately, after we’d landed, the producer/director said to me ‘Had a problem with a couple of cameras.’ We had to do it again the following day. I didn’t sleep that night.
I’m glad we did it again though. It was much better.
What do you hope people will take away from the series?
I hope it makes people feel more connected with nature, because we are. A lot of the problems we are trying to solve involve the same issues nature faces every day – flight, food, resources, sensing or conserving energy.
I also hope it engenders more respect for the processes of nature. And hopefully make people feel that these subjects are accessible, that you don’t have to be a scientist or a natural historian to say ‘This is bloody interesting!’
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