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Interview with "The Earth Transformed" Author Peter Frankopan; Interview with Activist and Artist and "Making Sense" Artist Ai Weiwei; Interview with NASA Head of Science Nicola Fox. Aired 1-2p ET
Aired December 28, 2023 - 13:00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Amanpour." Here's what's coming up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PETER FRANKOPAN, AUTHOR, "THE EARTH TRANSFORMED": The spread of human history is all about rises and falls. And some of those great cities in the
past aren't here anymore today.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Lessons to be learned. I asked historian and author Peter Frankopan how the climate has shaped history throughout the millennia, and
what we can know from civilizations that collapsed because of environmental disasters.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AI WEIWEI, ACTIVIST AND ARTIST AND ARTIST, "MAKING SENSE": Look how those pixels are so beautiful.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Art through activism, brick by brick, my conversation with Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei at the unveiling of his new exhibition,
including the Lego version of Monet's Water Lilies.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NICOLA FOX, HEAD OF SCIENCE, NASA: We can actually, for the first time, really study the surface of Mars.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Walter Isaacson asked NASA's new head of science, Dr. Nicola Fox, how its upcoming missions can impact humanity's future.
And what a banana peeling elephant tells us about animals fascinating and sophisticated behavior.
Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.
And we begin tonight with a Climate Change Catch-22. How can the most vulnerable countries protect against climate change if they're drowning in
debt? A major international aid agency revealed this week that 93 percent of the world's worst affected countries can't even afford to safeguard
against natural disasters. Some are being forced to slash public spending or invest in fossil fuel industries just to pay back their debts to central
ActionAid International says it is high time for a radical overhaul of the way debt is managed to stop the climate crisis spiraling, pointing to the
IMF and World Bank meetings this week in Washington.
The COP 27 Climate Summit in November made historic progress on creating a fund for countries most at risk. The impact of our changing climate is all
around us all the time. Like the two apartment buildings that collapsed in a landslide in Mexico this week. Landslides affect people all over the
world. And scientists say that climate change is only making them worse.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my goodness.
BEN LESCHINSKY, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY: There's a variety of landslide types.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Back up, back up. Go quick, quick. Go, go, go, go.
LESCHINSKY: The fastest moving tend to be debris flows, which are somewhere between a flood and landslide itself. And they can move rather
quickly, 30 miles per hour for example. On the other end, you can have very large landslides, much, much larger. They might move very slowly in some
instances. Those are the kinds that damage roads and cause closures.
When you look at a global scale, the numbers we have in terms of the estimates for casualties are largely an underestimate. Many landslides
aren't reported, many casualties aren't reported. And often, what you'll see is that landslides are secondary hazard. They're associated with
something bigger, for example, an earthquake or a big rainstorm, and so often casualties are kind of lumped under the primary hazard an earthquake,
One thing that many researchers and state agencies, and federal agencies are looking into is how does this change in climate control the rate of
landsliding, and the associated hazards with it. It's under the suspicion that this -- that our changing climate will drive more landslide fence.
Effectively, we might expect more extreme precipitation events in certain parts of the country, and that can drive significantly more land sliding.
One potential driver of landslides is snow melt, especially when snow melts very quickly. We're seeing larger fires. These larger and more intense
burns can also predispose the landscape to more landslides. More hurricanes, et cetera, could also result in more landslide events.
It's complicated. Landslides and our interaction with landslides as people is often viewed as a negative, you know. It can cause casualty. It can
cause property damage and damage to our infrastructure. But in reality, landslides are a natural process. They shape the landscape. They make the
mountains look like they look like. So, in the end, you know, it's just one of those many natural things that might pose a hazard to people but are
part of the natural process on the planet.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Historian and author Peter Frankopan addresses how climate change has shaped the development and often the demise of civilizations
throughout time. His book is called "The Earth Transformed" and he joined me here in the studio to discuss his epic explorations.
Peter Frankopan, welcome back to our program.
PETER FRANKOPAN, AUTHOR, "THE EARTH TRANSFORMED": Lovely to be here with you.
AMANPOUR: So, we've just been dealing with the issue of landslides in that report. And your book is inter alia about the effect of the environment on
our civilization throughout history. Do you have a specific take on landslides?
FRANKOPAN: Well, everything has to do with how we live with the natural resources around us, and because there are so many more of us today than
there were in the past, the way in which we exploit the natural landscape has consequences. So, in the United States alone, since 1860, we've lost
about 60 billion metric tons of topsoil. So, that means that there are all these cascading effects that make it harder for trees to catch on harder
for roots to take, because we exploit the environment around us.
And I think that's something that people in the past, in the very distant past were extremely aware of, that if you over exploit your natural
environment. There are ecological consequences that can like make life precarious, as in the case of landslides threats to life. But it could also
damage our ability to grow things to make the land work in the way in which we want to need it to.
AMANPOUR: What would you say is the central message and theme of your book? I mean, is it that this is kind of inevitable? Is it that we're
actually hurtling towards yet another extinction because you catalog very, very, you know, intensively how environment has, you know, shaped
civilizations over the years?
FRANKOPAN: Well, I guess it's three things. First, when we go back to the beginning of recorded history, human history where people start to write
things down, all the people in the past were worried about ecological collapse. The story of the creation, which is sacred to Jews, and
Christians, and Muslims, is all about God creating an environment that is perfect. And if you transgress and disobey God, you're punished with Adam
and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden and finding it difficult to make things grow and the displeasure of God through the floods of Noah or
through Chinese belief systems or Indian belief systems, to show that if you get things wrong, there are consequences. I think that's important.
Second, as a historian, the spread of human history is all about rises and falls. And some of those great cities in the past aren't here anymore
today. Places like to Tikal or Chichen Itza or --
AMANPOUR: Which is where?
FRANKOPAN: -- in Central America and Guatemala -- or in Mexico and Guatemala or places like Nineveh or Nippur in places like Iraq. These were
great cities that people don't really know of any more, the name, let alone being thriving civilizations. And that's because if you fail to adapt to
change, if you fail to adapt to rising populations, to water shortages, to the ability to exploit and grow things, then there are consequences. So,
there's a bit of a warning, I think, around that.
But third is around about the ecological world we live in today, which is clearly at a series of tipping points where we need to be very conscious of
what happens when there are vulnerabilities of a warming world. So, for example, there are about 300 cities in today's world where the average
temperature is above 35 degrees centigrade. We reckon by 2050, there'll be more like 600 cities, and that's nearly 2 billion people who are obviously
going to be living in conditions that you can defeat through sciences, you can invest in air conditioning, but life becomes much more difficult and
And I think that one of the things I'm very aware of in the world today is we don't connect with the world around us particularly well, you know. We
are aware that fossil fuels create carbon dioxide and these emissions that make the world warmer, but we don't think too much about where things come
from, how they're grown, how many -- there are 20,000 plastic bottles sold every second or, you know, a couple of years ago, when there were big
Russian forest fires, 10 football pitches per minute are lost from forest.
AMANPOUR: So, let me ask you this then.
AMANPOUR: You just -- because you just mentioned, you know, the fossil fuels and all the rest of it. Obviously, everybody's trying to figure out
how to deal with that because in our civilization, that is our existential threat. So, I don't know what you make of this clean energy think tank,
Ember. It put out a report today saying that wind and solar power produced a record amount of the world's electricity last year, and it sees that
trend continuing in the years ahead.
So, I mean, A, do you buy that? And B, can science save us? You've said, we don't particularly adapt well. We don't particularly pay attention to this,
you know, effect and the consequences, et cetera. Can science help us? What will it take?
FRANKOPAN: Absolutely, science can help us. But a bit like the pandemic, you can solve problems but it's expensive to solve them at speed and solve
the late. So, in 1973, for example, in -- when there was breakdown in the Middle East and oil prices shot through them through the roof, consecutive
U.S. administrations tried to adopt a big clean energy program, particularly around solar. And had the investments gone in at that point,
things would look very different.
And here we are in Europe, we're energy insecure. We depend on our fossil fuels coming from the Middle East, from Russia, that creates challenges.
China, likewise, energy insecure, that's a different set of ecological cards to the United States. So, I think there are differences in how that
AMANPOUR: Why did it not happen in the U.S. since '73?
FRANKOPAN: Because things settled down and I suppose if you're really cynical, it's because politicians have to compete for votes. And foreign
affairs doesn't buy votes, nor does clean energy policy tends to be around lower taxes, tends to be around social issues.
And I think that's a real challenge going forward that to make that green energy transition, there will presumably be some kind of changes to the way
our political systems work because at the moment, the electorates aren't voting for it. Everyone's aware of recycling but it might well be that a
price to pay is different kinds of political decision making to lead us to those transitions.
AMANPOUR: But some electorates are voting for it. I mean, they say if you break down the number of people who went to the polls in the United States
in the presidentials in 2020, climate was a big thing. In Europe, you know, Netherlands and elsewhere, climate is a big deal. And I wonder if, if you
get any -- you know, if you feel hopeful about that.
But also, to go back to some of the -- you know, the issues with the environment throughout history, you know, there's a huge volcano, for
instance, that's just spewing around in, you know --
AMANPOUR: Yes, in Russia. What did these things do historically and today?
FRANKOPAN: Well, any form of disruption, political, military, economic, or climatological increases inequality, very simple. And when you create
inequalities, you can have situations that lead to social unrest. For example, in the 1780s in France, very severe winters and wet springs
reduced the amount of wheat that was grown, that forced prices up, cost of living went up, inflation. And then the king tried to say, well, look,
listen, anybody who's got a grievance, please send it in writing. And 25,000 people submitted documents -- 25,000 documents were submitted. And
that then spilled over into calls for more dramatic action that led to the French Revolution, and the king's head in a basket a couple of years later.
So, those kinds of things can happen when there's when there's sudden shocks. You can produce volatilities. And, you know, going back,
Christiane, what you're asking about now, I think that the problem is, is that we're in the middle of such a big crisis here in Europe because of the
war in Ukraine, because of Russia, because of energy. That it's concentrated lots of our minds. So, funny enough, one of the byproducts of
Putin's invasion of Ukraine has been to accelerate a green transition.
AMANPOUR: Which is kind of a good byproduct, if there's to be a byproduct, that one would be a positive one.
FRANKOPAN: Right. But the next thing is to make a green energy transition, we need the materials that are -- that make that work. And that's metals
which, lo and behold, lots come from Russia. And then lots of the rare earths we need for the super magnets and for the other materials are from
China, where we also have a very fractured relationship and difficult relationship for many good reasons at the moment.
So, those transitions aren't as simple as saying, let's just put turbines up everywhere, it's, how do you make those, where do you find them, how we
got the metals and materials, what happens when suddenly everybody tries to act the same way. The price spikes work in different ways too. So, those
renewable transitions can't be managed if you're not going through other kinds of threats at the same time.
AMANPOUR: You do also address the issue of overpopulation, right? And, you know, there's a question, you know, some have said, well, how, you know,
without mass slaughter of the population, are you going to recalibrate the number of people on this planet that the planet can actually, you know,
cope with and deal with? How does that happen?
FRANKOPAN: Well, I'm pretty sanguine about that. I mean, lots of people have predicted that we were overpopulated and we would cause mass
starvation. But here we are in 2023, and although there's chronic poverty in most developed countries, as well as around the world, you know, we
managed to do just about OK, you know.
Actually, famines are relatively rare. When they do happen, the industrial communities tend to respond reasonably well. And I'm quite hopeful about
that. It could be the demographics that are falling in most developed countries will start to alter the number of people, but people on their own
are not the problem. It's how do you -- how do you spend what you've got.
And I don't just mean financially, also, ecologically. I mean, every single pair of jeans requires 7,500 liters of water. And that -- those kinds of
facts, I think, should stop and make us think that, you know, can we really afford to be spending out resources as quickly as we are?
AMANPOUR: To get back to, you know, what you said at the beginning, often we don't pay attention, and then we're in, you know, up, you know, where
without a paddle. So, one of the things you draw attention to is the rate of biodiversity loss. And many colleagues have talked about, you know, the
next extinction, something we're in it right now.
So, I want you to talk about that historically. And then, you know, we see a lot of rewilding, you know, David Attenborough has got a fantastic
program on right now called "Wild Isles," about the British Isles and what can happen, you know, to try to reintroduce and save biodiversity.
FRANKOPAN: Well, you know, these efforts are obviously great. I mean, I suppose when we think about extinctions, the first sort of stop in your
track's moment is that every single life form on Earth today is survivor or it descends from the survivors of those five great mass extinctions of the
past. So, every life form, every plant, every animal is a beneficiary of these massive changes from hundreds of millions of years ago.
So, I think that will tell us that we should remember that we are one animal amongst very many. And if the environment changes against us, if you
believe in evolution, which most people do, then there's no reason why we get to beat the system all the time, because the natural history tells you
that that's not what happens, hence, no more dinosaurs, who I'd imagined would have given us a good run for our money.
So, I think that those -- that staying sober about what happens if things go wrong is important. You know, I would guess that when we think about
extinction points, although, we can rewild, there's a price to pay for globalization.
FRANKOPAN: You know, we learned that from the bat in Wuhan, however that pathogen was released, the coronavirus, and the new one is established
every single day on average. When we connect intensively, and every point on the planet is 18 hours by flight away, that's great for getting goods
cheaply. But it also means that we bring other things when we travel and when we move and when we cough. And the emerging infectious disease in a
warming world is something we should be paying quite a lot of attention to.
So, if you start with the lessons of history, thinking about what the pandemic could and should have taught us from two or three years ago
around, not just any new pandemic, but around diseases that respond to warming environments. So, about 90 percent of the world's population will
be susceptible to malaria and dengue fever in the next 50 years, on current projections.
AMANPOUR: Do you -- look, often, you know, if people -- you know, people sort of left to do it on their own sort of libertarian, you know, let it
all happen. But do you believe that it's really going to take really tough regulations? And, you know, to get us back on an even keel as a species,
because you know that, recently, the U.N. General Assembly has passed a resolution, put forward by one of the most susceptible the island of
Vanuatu, right, in the Pacific.
Hundred countries have co-sponsored it. And it calls on the International Court of Justice to address climate change. And we understand that in other
-- I think in the Netherlands, there have been -- or in Europe, there have been court cases brought against polluters. Is that what is going to take -
- where do you see the hope?
FRANKOPAN: Oh, I'm a very hopeful person. I mean, I tend to believe in pragmatism rather than optimism or pessimism, but there's a lot of low
hanging fruit. So, there are about 30,000 fossil-powered fuel stations that produce electricity around the world, and 5 percent of those, about 1,500,
produce 75 percent of all electricity emissions.
So, if you took those out of commission, if you bought them and close them down, if you clean them up, there's -- you know, there's a lot that you can
do to improve things. We waste about 930 million tons of food per year globally, that's about 8 percent to 10 percent of global emissions are
people growing stuff, taking it to the store, putting it in the freezer or the fridge, or not eating it, throwing it away. Those kinds of things are
quite easy to manage.
AMANPOUR: And that releases methane.
FRANKOPAN: Well, yes. Absolutely. And much better than trying to get governments to be prescriptive and punish. I think there's a lot of things
one could do that doesn't require an enormous amount of enlightenment, but it just requires some thought and some action. And like I said 20,000
plastic bottles per second are sold globally, that's probably not great.
And the microplastics that we're throwing out from our detergents mean that every single one of us has microplastics in our blood, unborn children and
placentas attached to their mothers. And those kinds of ways in which we live are dangerous.
AMANPOUR: Peter Frankopan, thank you very much indeed.
AMANPOUR: Obviously, China needs to be fully on board to properly mitigate the global climate change crisis. In China, two high profile human rights
lawyers have been jailed for more than a decade for what the Chinese government calls subversion of state power. Their crime, attending a
private gathering with other civil rights activist back in 2019. It is the harshest example yet of Beijing's crackdown on Chinese rights lawyers.
The exiled Chinese dissident and renowned artist, Ai Weiwei, was once detained for 81 days on the very same charge of state subversion. His new
exhibition in London is described as a meditation on value humanity, art and activism. I spoke to him as you saw the centerpiece of that new
installation for the very first time. It's a massive reimagining of Monet's famous Water Lilies made entirely of Lego.
AMANPOUR: Ai Weiwei, welcome to your own exhibition. This is the first time you've seen it up.
AI WEIWEI, ACTIVIST AND ARTIST AND ARTIST, "MAKING SENSE": Yes. This is the first moment I have seen this large installation and --
AMANPOUR: And what do you think?
WEIWEI: I cannot believe it. It's -- I wish Monet can see through my eyes, and how beautiful this can be. Look how those pixels are so beautiful.
AMANPOUR: So, this is --
AMANPOUR: -- 650,000 bricks of Lego. I don't even know how you start doing this, with the shade and all the different color because it's a completely
different perspective when you stand back and look at it. And it's the one of the most famous impressionist paintings in the whole world.
WEIWEI: Yes. And probably also the largest.
AMANPOUR: And the largest. This is 15 meters, right?
WEIWEI: Yes. I think it's slightly bigger than the one in MOMA.
AMANPOUR: OK. So, it's bigger than the original.
AMANPOUR: Why did you want to take on Monet? What was your reason?
WEIWEI: Well, my father loves Monet while he was in Paris, 1920s. And one of his little painting was selected by this independent salon. So, he was
always so proud of that.
AMANPOUR: Your father?
WEIWEI: Yes, my father. And even where he cleans the public toilet, he tells me the story. And I never see him paints because he'd become a poet,
that he'd become exiled. So, for me, I'm trying to do something which make my father also proud.
AMANPOUR: Wow. That's a really amazing story. And actually, if we walk further along this incredible Lego canvas, we can see, and I hadn't
realized what it was until I read. But here is a hole. This doesn't exist in the real Monet, lilies.
AMANPOUR: What is this?
WEIWEI: It only exists on my iPhone. You're seeing the hole?
AMANPOUR: Yes. Yes, I see the hole.
AMANPOUR: So, it's a real hole in real life in China.
WEIWEI: It's a hole. We stayed there for five years, inside this hole. So, for me to build my personal experience into the works, I admire the most
among the impressionist.
AMANPOUR: I don't understand. What were you doing in that hole in China for five years with your father?
WEIWEI: My father was punished in this kind of labor camp to be re- educated in Xinjiang, whereas 20 years later, many Uyghur people --
WEIWEI: -- are still in those.
AMANPOUR: So, this is the very same place that today the Uyghurs are in camps.
AMANPOUR: And your father was exiled because?
WEIWEI: My father was exiled a year I was born, 1957. And because he was intellectual, poet and they have a very different attitude.
AMANPOUR: Why? Why did they crack down then?
WEIWEI: Well, the party, communist party, they don't like anybody who has different opinions or different attitude. He's not even anti-communist but
they gave him a name as anti-people, anti-communist, so.
AMANPOUR: Wow. Well, it's an amazing memorialization to that. And a tribute to Monet, it's just a phenomenal thing.
WEIWEI: Yes. It's (INAUDIBLE) bunked my father's experience, my experience and Monet together.
AMANPOUR: Well, let's sit down because this exhibition, you call "Making Sense." What are you making sense of? Why have you titled it that?
WEIWEI: I think all so-called creativities is about how do we sense and artistic creativity is really about how to making sense, and to connect our
sensitivity and our expressions, you can relate to -- or life, which can be history, memory and also, political issues.
AMANPOUR: Which is what your life is all about. I mean, when we first met, you had been beaten up by the Chinese authorities for certain art
installations, and this was, you know, more than 10 years ago. And you have been an activist, and your whole political world is wrapped up in your art,
obviously. Is it particularly difficult to make sense certainly for the world about China, about its relationship with artists with political
dissidents, or even just political expression?
WEIWEI: It's very difficult to even just talk about a common sense is not always common, it's not always there. And so, our understanding about very
essential ideas to very large political discussions. And so, the -- we always need to make sense -- or making sense that is very important for me.
And also, to build up some kind of communication, to reach out the readers or people observes those situation.
AMANPOUR: So, before we go into some of that, I just want you to place us where we are right now, these massive wood beams represent what in this
WEIWEI: Here, we are sitting right in the middle of one installation. And this installation is about using the old beams and pillars from old
buildings. Classic construction, which can be hundreds, hundreds years old. And, of course, they're being destroyed in China, very commonly, for all
kinds of reasons. And I build those buildings with the classic furnitures. This kind of skill with no nails, is all puzzled together.
So, to trying to use the same logic of so-called tradition, and the understanding of a tradition, but to destroy itself.
AMANPOUR: You do that with the ancient vases as well. We've seen certain exhibits that you've done in the past where you're dropping them. I mean,
major valuable pieces. And here, you have an entire so-called field of them, which represents your destroyed studio in Beijing.
So, now, that you're here, and we are about to, you know, after this interview, the rest of the Lego installation is going to be completed.
WEIWEI: Will be there.
AMANPOUR: This -- where we're sitting is going to be completely a field of Lego.
AMANPOUR: And over there are boxes of Lego, with the names like Helsinki, Malaga. What is that about? Why did you get those donations?
WEIWEI: The story is I was trying to doing large Lego portraits for those political activist or freedom fighters. Then we had the problems with Lego
company. They said they have a policy not to selling the plastic bricks to -- for the usage of a political activist. So, I think that is quite
So, I put that on the internet. Suddenly, many, many people and museums, about 20 museums start who have this happening to donate their Legos to me.
AMANPOUR: I guess the question is, why do you like to create art in Lego? You've said before, their qualities of solidity potential for
deconstruction reflect the attributes of language in our rapidly developing era where human consciousness is constantly dividing.
WEIWEI: Well, Lego have a lot of qualities I prefer, and it's no longer as a personal gesture in there, it's most democratic up to design can give to
anybody. They can structure it, and it come out exactly same quality. And it's just no better one or less good ones.
AMANPOUR: You know, behind you, we can see these traditional Chinese sort of snake dragons. And until you go very close, you're not quite sure what
they are. So, one of them is a load of backpacks, another one is life vests. These also were political art that you've created over the years.
Remind everybody what the backpacks were.
WEIWEI: Well, the backpacks come from a huge earthquake happened in Sichuan 2008, May 20. And -- or May 12. And in that few second, about 5,335
students disappeared because the collapsing of what we call the Dofu (ph) construction, it cuts from corruptions, almost everywhere. So, I'm asking
who are they and how they got vanished?
So, of course, authority will never answer that. So, I organized the citizen investigation, first time in China or also last time in China. It's
not possible today. So, we still -- we gathered or discovered those names and birthdays. So, I always trying to think, as artists, what can the
language can I use just to re-announce to give dignity to those people. So, I use the students the backpacks to create some forms --
AMANPOUR: Tribute to them and memory as well.
WEIWEI: Oh, yes. Trying to make people not to forget.
AMANPOUR: And holding a government to account in a way.
WEIWEI: The government may sound to be holding them in account, they will all be corrupted. This is the nature of a power. So, it's a responsibility
for individual, artists or not, to hold them accountable.
AMANPOUR: So, what are you saying about the life vests? That also is about a tragic moment in our shared history.
WEIWEI: Life vest is come from my visit to, last fall, 2015.
AMANPOUR: This was the Greek island.
AMANPOUR: And in this beautiful island, I observed and watched the people come to the shore -- ashore from the ocean, you know. They are all kinds of
immigrants from a war zone. So, I made a film, "Human Flow," at the same time, I'm still trying to use artistic language to make my emotions to be
understandable or acceptable.
AMANPOUR: Do you feel a sense of movement? Do you feel that what you're doing -- because you are also an activist? I mean, a very prominent
activist. There are very few Chinese activists. Do you feel like it's making a difference? You live outside of China now.
WEIWEI: I do feel a bit different, first, personally for myself, and also, to young people. And people will have a sense of possibilities where just
suggest art can be a unique opportunity for -- where we express ourselves. And there's no way, as a parent, can really crush that. It's not possible.
AMANPOUR: There's no way tyrants and authoritarians can crush that. Do you still believe that?
WEIWEI: That's true. I think when -- since can be harder or difficult, but that costs a better art to come out.
AMANPOUR: Were there any repercussions that you received? You know, you've told me about the migrant film you did, "Human Flow." But you also did, you
know, an important film about tracking coronavirus. And obviously, the Chinese government has come under a huge amount of criticism for how they
dealt with it. You called it "Coronation." And you've made a film about the Hong Kong pro-democracy activist movement.
Have you faced any repercussions? You know, President Putin of Russia and the Russian authorities are known for disappearing and poisoning, and
killing their opponents. Does that ever worry you? Does Chinese government do that kind of stuff?
WEIWEI: I'm very bad person to estimate of danger. I'm always underestimated. And also, I'm very positive. I think we always want to make
sense better. And I -- you know, I'm not against anybody. I just want sense to be better. So, I don't think anybody really trying to do this kind of
dirty tricks on me. It's not possible.
AMANPOUR: What do you make of A.I. as an artist's tool? A.I. has suddenly, you know, from a sort of a rumbling exploded, everything from, you know,
fake work to even fake writing, now we have chat bot or whatever the heck it's called, I don't know. But it's quite worrying suddenly to people like
Is it something you embrace or are you concerned about?
WEIWEI: Well, funny enough, that's my name, AI. But I always (inaudible) why you all mentioned my name. You know, I will say this is -- the sense
has no future. It just destroys the humanity and the human effort, and doesn't really understand the whole we are under just trying to use some
kind of machine games to replace human being. And that is designed by the idea to create profit or -- you know, it's almost Iverson (ph) made about
same idea to be more efficient and not dismiss the human effort or temperature, or even our possibilities to make mistakes. So, this is I
think, is nice and beautiful about it.
AMANPOUR: I want to believe you, but, you know, social media took over basically communications, fake news has become, for some people, actual
truth. And I'm hopeful that you -- you're right, that A.I. won't take over the human spirit and the human artistic endeavor or human speech. What
makes you so sure?
WEIWEI: Well, I'm so sure as human being we left under tests. And, you know, we are not -- we will never be perfect. And A.I. trying to create
assumption, which to generalize the situation to give a very mediocre type answer. You know, it's -- I think it's I -- for me, it's pretty
unbelievable. And of course, it can dominate our life or life has already been very much dominates by the fake news, by the all kind of crime. But
that only means we have a lot of reasons to do and to clean out situation.
AMANPOUR: Well, you're still at it. Ai Weiwei, thank you so much, indeed.
WEIWEI: Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: And while Ai Weiwei may not think A.I. is the future for the artistic world, it is certainly proving beneficial in science. NASA is
using the technology to sift through years of data, finding connections that will be impossible for a human to detect. And our next guest is in
charge of exploring those secrets. Dr. Nicola Fox is NASA's newly named Associate Administrator for the Space Agency's Science Mission Directorate.
It's a very long title but she's joining Walter Isaacson to discuss future space missions, including the recent Artemis II crew announcement.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WALTER ISAACSON, CNN HOST: Thank you, Christiane. And, Dr. Nicola Fox, welcome to the show.
NICOLA FOX, HEAD OF SCIENCE, NASA: Thank you very much.
ISAACSON: The Biden administration just proposed, I think, $8 billion or so for scientific research for NASA, what you get to oversee. Tell us
what's in that that's particularly exciting.
FOX: Oh, there's lots of exciting things. So, this is, you know, the biggest budget that we've had for NASA Science, so we're really excited. We
are sort of moving ahead, really establishing our Earth's system observatory.
So, thinking about coordinated measurements that look at all different types of climate impact, so we can really protect our planet. So, looking
at, you know, the ocean, the water level, weather, looking at tornadoes and hurricanes and, you know, studying pollution and all of these different
things, but doing it in a very coordinated way.
So, there -- and then, actually, producing sort of moving on to produce actionable information. So, it's not just, oh, look at this data, isn't it
really interesting, but it's looking at this data and, you know, this is what it really means.
ISAACSON: Well, give me an example of that, what can we do practically from this data that you're hoping to see?
FOX: One of our studies is actually looking at wildfires and where they're located, and where they're breaking out. And, you know, what the conditions
are in the region, so that you can maybe, you know, start to predict that you could have welfares, or certainly bring in much quicker, you know, the
ability to contain them. And so that's, you know, one element.
We'll also -- also, in our budget, we are -- have support for a Mars sample-return mission, and that's a very exciting mission. So, you may have
seen all those beautiful images from the Perseverance Rover, as it's traversing around. It's -- while it's been driving around, it's actually
been taking samples into little sample tubes and sort of, you know, putting them into a cache inside the rover. And just a few weeks ago, the rover
laid down 10 samples on the Martian surface, and then has sort of driven away. And it's going to go take more samples.
We are now designing the mission that will actually go to Mars, have a lander, pick up those samples, and bring them back to Earth. So, we can
actually, for the first time, really study the surface of Mars. So, really excited about that. That's a joint mission with the European Space Agency
ISAACSON: What about sending humans both to Mars and then from Mars to the moon?
FOX: Yes. So, of course, we are really building on the success of Artemis I launch that happened in November of last year. You know, there'll be crew
that will go in the Artemis II, so they'll actually go around the moon. And then Artemis III, we will land people back on the moon, at the southern
pole of the moon.
And then, we're sort of really looking at that, from a couple of things, you know, one is to have a sustained presence at the moon to actually, you
know, be able to work and do science and really, you know, do great things at the moon. But also, as the sort of the first point, to then sending
people to Mars.
And so, you know, it's also one big coordinated program, sending people back to the moon, sending a mission that can actually retrieve samples. It
will be the first time, by the way, with Mars sample-return that we've ever launched something off another planet. So, you know, just a one big sort of
push to really further exploration.
ISAACSON: What is the role of private companies like SpaceX in the mission that you're going to be doing?
FOX: So, we're really enjoying the partnerships with the commercial providers. They are really helping to open up space for everybody. You
know, we just look at the number of launches that we have, the number of things that we are able to put into space, you know, sending crew to the to
the ISS, which is always a really exciting thing to do.
And so -- and really helping us make these technological breakthroughs. So, pushing the boundaries of technology, and just opening up the ability for
us to get to space. So, they're extremely important. We actually have a program, the Commercial Lunar Payload Service Program. And that is we're
putting sort of NASA Science onto landers and onto rovers that are provided by commercial partners.
And it is -- you know, we put out a call, the commercial partners were able to bid to be able to host the NASA Science, also some commercial science
going on there too, but enabling us to get NASA Science quickly up to the moon to start doing those experiments that we've been waiting to do.
ISAACSON: One of the great technology advances that's mesmerized us for the past few months, is the use of artificial intelligence and machine
learning on huge data set. As NASA's chief scientist, you got one of the biggest data sets around, how is that transforming what you're doing as a
scientist at NASA?
FOX: Actually, we have a lot of examples of using A.I. M.L. in our data. And often it's, it's being able to find those little signatures that, you
know, we missed when we -- we're very focused, maybe looking at event data. And so, you know, you see a big event happen, and you look at all the data
and you write your papers. But often because we're focused on those kinds of things, we don't stand back and look at years and years, and years'
worth of data kind of in one go.
ISAACSON: Well, can you give me an example of that?
FOX: Yes, certainly. So, if we think about sort of some of the really big solar storms that we see, that cause really big space weather events here
at Earth, and we've been trying to find if there are sort of any precursor, anything in there that might tell us that this event is going to be bigger.
One of the challenges we had is we haven't had a really, really, really big space weather event for a number of years. And so, are we actually went
back and used data that isn't even from scientific spacecraft, it's some of our Air Force partners, and we took some of their engineering data. And
working with Amazon Web Services, we sort of actually got that data set ready to be ingested and to be ready for A.I. M.L. And then, we were able
to find signatures that were associated with some of the larger events back over the last 50 years, and actually find some signatures that, going
forward, we know we should look for these signatures in future large space weather events.
And since we've just had such an active sun with lots of great Aurora being visible, we've certainly got some great candidates for new science datasets
that we can apply these A.I. M.L. techniques to.
ISAACSON: You're talking about solar storms and space weather events, that sort of your expertise. But tell us what those are and how it might affect
us on Earth.
FOX: So, obviously, our sun is a pretty active star. We think of it as an average star, but it's a very important average star because it's the one
that sustain life on our planet. And if you look at the sun, just invisible, it looks kind of like a plane disc. If you look at it within
ultraviolet, you suddenly see there's all this activity and you can see all this sort of loops of plasma, these magnetic field loops that stick up
above the sun surface.
And every now and again, those sunspot groups can be very, very active. And so, they actually can almost explode. And these magnetic field lines break.
They snap and they let all of this coronal material sort of just accelerate away from the sun. And often, if that sunspot is facing us here at Earth,
so as the sun is rotating, if it's actually facing us here at Earth, then all that plasma gets accelerated at millions of miles an hour, and can come
and impact our planet.
It can cause large scale changes in our magnetic atmosphere, our magnetosphere that sort of protects us from the solar wind and space. It
can power very, very beautiful Aurora, just as we've seen very recently. But Auroras in the sky, that's a big current system, so that can actually
impact our power grids, you know, long pipelines, undersea cables. It can cause problems for spacecraft and all of it. So, you know, the more we rely
on technology, the more we are susceptible to what's happening on our sun.
ISAACSON: Your expertise is in heliophysics, which basically means the science of the sun. And you done a probe, you're in charge of the probe
that went right to the edge of the sun. What did we learn from that?
FOX: So, yes. Parker Solar Probe, briefly flies through the sun's corona in the sort of the, where it's, you know, millions of degrees of heat. And
we are learning all about the atmosphere of a star. So, you know, for decades and decades, we've studied the sun, we've studied it. We've looked
at it in all different wavelengths. We've been in at that time, as far as the planet Mercury.
And so, we've been able to study the extended atmosphere of the sun. But we really didn't know -- you know, know -- you know that things are happening
in certain regions, you know that there's suddenly an increase in heat, and there's a big increase in energy, and it causes that, that corona, to
accelerate away very fast, but you don't know what the processes are because you haven't been -- you haven't flown through them, you haven't
actually flown and found out what is happening in that region.
And so, with Parker Solar Probe, we've been able to do that. We've certainly found that things that -- the sort of the processes that we
thought could be causing heat, things like magnetic field lines, sort of kinking on themselves, and then snapping back straight, which actually can
release a lot of heat and energy, that is happening further away from the sun than we originally thought on our very first perihelion path or our
closest approach, the very first one, where we thought, oh, you know, that'll be nice, we'll see some interesting stuff. And we actually started
seeing these little features, these little switchbacks. They're like sort of S-shaped features in magnetic field lines, where it kind of kinking back
We saw those in the -- you know, the very first orbit. As we get closer, we've seen them getting larger and getting more frequent. And so, you know,
finding out these sorts of reasons that the sun is such an interesting star. And what we learn about our sun, we can apply to other stars in other
stellar systems where we also see space weather. We see, you know, these big flares and big events that we see on our sun. We see them on other
stars as well. So, as you're looking for habitable planets, in other stellar systems, you know, what you learn about our sun is directly
ISAACSON: When you got your degree in physics from Imperial College London, you're often the only woman in any of the classes. Tell me about
your path and tell me about the way we can open up that path to more women big in physics and astrophysics.
FOX: Yes. So, I did do physics and it was a pretty low percentage of women. And, you know, it was tough. It was tough because sometimes, you
know, you felt like I don't understand something. But I don't want to ask the question because I don't want to be the one who looks dumb. And so, you
know, it takes a little while to get comfortable with being OK asking the questions.
And, you know, yes, I did my degree, I did a masters in engineering. And then, I came back to Imperial College and did my Ph.D. And, you know, moved
to the US. There was -- there weren't a lot of women. I've seen a great increase in the number of women coming into the industry, taking up very
And I think it's, you know, it's important as a woman to talk to other -- particularly to girls, and say, you know, you can do this. And there is a
role for everybody in this type of business. And to make sure that, you know, you're being very supportive. I'll do things like I'll ask the dumb
question, you know, the one that -- you know, that I'll embarrass myself and I'll asked the question, and then everyone feels comfortable asking
There's just little things that you can do that make a huge difference to help people interact with one another.
ISAACSON: What's the really big question that you'd love to have answered during your career?
FOX: Oh, gosh. So many. But I really think, you know, that it's the are we alone in the universe? You know, we are really focusing with the James Webb
Telescope finding so many exoplanets, finding -- you know, even -- and even now, managing to take measurements of the atmospheres around exoplanets.
You know, what are the building blocks? What are the things that actually would sustain life? You know, we're excited in September of this year, we
have OSIRIS-REx returning to Earth, bringing samples from an asteroid, Bennu. And that asteroid has been around a long, long time. It was back.
You know, we think it was there sort of at the time that our planets were forming.
So, it's got those kind of molecular building blocks inside the asteroid, may be able to tell us about planet formation, about what caused us to be
able to sustain water here, and therefore, sustain life on our planet. And then, it tells us what -- you know, what kind of things, what signatures we
might want to look for when we're looking in other stellar systems.
The next big astrophysics mission that we will start will be the Habitable Worlds Observatory. And that really is a mission focusing on not just
looking for, you know, exoplanets or looking for planets that happened to be orbiting stars, but what is it that we would look for to find signatures
Also, sending Europa Clipper to fly sort of through the methane plumes at Europa, and see if there's any signatures of life there. We have a
Dragonfly Mission that's going to go to Titan, that's a sort of a -- it kind of hops around, it's like a quadcopter. And they're going to be
looking for signatures of life in Titan.
So, they're the kind of questions that it's just -- I mean, not necessarily finding another planet like ours, but just finding life elsewhere. I think
that's the big question that I'm really excited about.
ISAACSON: And why it's so important?
FOX: For me, it's just curiosity. It's that feeling of, you know, really, there must be -- you know, what else is out there? If you think just back
to the 1950s, we didn't even think we could go to another planet or go to the moon, you know. And now, we've got -- we've sent our own spacecraft
that have left even our protective bubble, our heliosphere, the two voyages that we have, you know, gone past every planet, and then now out in
interstellar space, you know, looking at next generation missions that might go very fast out of our heliosphere and actually explore interstellar
space, thinking about what it would take to get to the next nearest star, and how do we just -- how do we expand what we know. And that's why I think
ISAACSON: We've talked about the practical reasons that we're doing all these things at NASA. And you've talked about the pure curiosity, the
elevated reason. I want to read you one of my favorite quotes in science, from the mathematician and physicist Poincare. And he said, scientists do
not study nature, because it's useful to do so. They study it because they take pleasure in it. Tell me, is that true for you?
FOX: Oh, it could not be more true. I mean, it's -- everything is fascinating to me. I mean -- but, you know, being a scientist is just
fascinating. It's the wanting to know more. It's the -- you know, again, talking to kids, being a scientist is not about being super smart, it's
about being really curious and it's about really liking to ask questions and always wanting to know more. And it is -- it's just a joy to study
And, I mean, being at NASA is even -- you know, we're studying things that are just amazing. The technology is at the forefront, the science is at the
forefront. And there are always more and more questions. Every mission you fly, you have three questions roughly, you want to -- you know, they have
sort of high-level science goals. But you know a good mission is going to create 30 more questions from those initial ones. And so, that's -- it's
just a joy to do it.
ISAACSON: Dr. Nicola Fox, thank you so much for joining us.
FOX: Thank you very much.
AMANPOUR: And finally, down here on Earth, she's a picky eater for good reason. This elephant at Berlin Zoo has learned how to peel a banana, but
only if it's ripe. Incredibly, Pang Pha turns her trunk up if they're overripe. But if it's green, she'll eat it whole, no peeling necessary.
Pang Pha's unique behavior was revealed by a team of neuroscientists who suspect that she learned how to peel a banana by watching her keepers. That
is a keeper.
And that's it for now. If you ever miss our show, you can find the latest episode shortly after it airs on our podcast. Remember, you can always
catch us online Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.