Playground (2017)

In ‘Fantastic Voyage’, the 1966 American science fiction film, a submarine crew shrinks to microscopic size and ventures into the blood stream of an injured scientist to repair the damage to his brain.

Exactly fifty years later, in October 2016, the Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded to three scientists for their work in the area of molecular machines, previously the domain of Fantastic Voyage-like science fiction. One of them was scientist Ben Feringa of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He and his team were able to give their molecules the abilities similar to a ‘4-wheel drive’ car with a motor on each of the four corners, all the size of a nanometer, which is equal to one billionth of a metre. Professor Feringa received the award together with the professors Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Sir James Fraser Stoddart, who in earlier stages had been working in this area.

’Noorderlicht, 'International House of Photography’, and the University of Groningen, both in the Netherlands, invited me to capture the essence of Feringa’s work. I spent several months following the research carried out by Feringa’s study group. My biggest eye opener was the moment I discovered that the molecular constructions, designed by the scientists, start to move when they are radiated by a specific colour of light! Specially for a photographer this was really a present.

‘Playground’, the title of my project refers to a quote from Ben Feringa, who feels that universities should be a playground for scientists, where they can follow their curiosity without any restriction. This sort of fundamental research is time consuming but on a longer term often leads to major transformations. Imagine in 15 to 20 years from now smart drugs that can be ‘switched on’ by light only at their target area, for instance a tumour.

My resulting series of images were presented during the Noorderlicht International Photo Festival ‘NUCLEUS’, about imagining science (on show in October and November 2017). They attempt to show how Nobel Prize winning scientific research is often characterized by failing, frustration and better failing. Sometimes, however, the experiments do start to become successful. As one of the researchers said: ‘Then your head explodes like a supernova’.