From: Universe - Facts in the post-truth era

The relationship between people, nature, technology and science has fascinated me since early childhood. In particular, the concept of man constantly working to expand his boundaries has always intrigued me. Later, I grew interested in all the purely fundamental scientific research it takes to achieve that. Such research generally seems to yield decades of nothing more than ‘useless’ knowledge, but at some point suddenly helps to generate a breakthrough that transforms the world, causing people's lives to change beyond recognition. But what is fundamental research in essence? Where does it take place and what does it look like? What are the great mysteries that scientists currently struggle to comprehend? And what do scientific facts mean in a world of alternative facts?

For 18 months, from autumn 2016 to spring 2018, I had the opportunity to research exactly what fundamental science truly entails. In this period, I was able to explore freely in the universe of one of the biggest concentrations of exact science in Europe: Amsterdam Science Park. This scientific cluster in the northeast of the city is situated in a fringe location that many Amsterdam locals find a bit too windy for their taste. Amsterdam Science Park marks the intersection of renowned institutes of higher education, high-quality research institutes, and knowledge-intensive businesses. While I was working on this documentary project, I frequently had to think of Bruno Latour. This French philosopher and anthropologist of science spent over two years in the 1980s in a microbiology lab in California. He published two books on the resulting research he did on science and scientists: Laboratory Life and Science in Action. He viewed scientists as if they were members of an indigenous tribe. Like Latour, I also wandered through research institutes and university laboratories. I was also able to speak freely with researchers and students alike; they enthusiastically showed me their projects and told me about their findings, their certainties, their passions and their doubts. They let me at their personal notebooks, gave me access to their hermetically sealed data centres, and allowed me to attend their brainstorming sessions. Unlike Latour, however, I did not express the results of my project in words and conclusions, but in a universe of images that evoke questions.

Nobel Prize
How does the world work? How is it structured? Science seems to be the intense quest to find answers to these questions. Scientific research is the most systematic way of understanding ourselves and the things around us. Our lives could not even be imagined without science. Our smart phones, the medicines we take, the foods we eat, and the probes we send to Mars: none of that would exist without science.
Successful scientists seem to be perceptive: they see exactly the same facts and phenomena that other scientists see, but they also see more. They see that little bit extra that could lead to a new theory or technological breakthrough. Moreover, they often appear to possess another quality, something that we also see in artists: a capacity for creative imagining. In 2017, I worked with Ben Feringa, a Dutch researcher who recently won a Nobel Prize for chemistry; our collaboration was in the context of another documentary project. He told me how he had been able to visualise the complex molecular structures he designed in order to build his famous molecular motors; he had been able to hold them in his mind very effectively during the creation process. He also felt that scientists should occasionally take the time to let their imagination run wild, or to be inspired by science fiction. That sometimes leads to exceptional ideas, that can then be tested in the lab.

The usefulness of useless knowledge
At the institutes in Amsterdam, I wandered around in a variety of fundamental scientific disciplines: physics, mathematics, astronomy, computer science, biology, chemistry, and biomedical research. I observed how scientists search for answers to questions that penetrate the heart of things, based solely on their curiosity, and generally without considering potential applications. Such long-term research sometimes takes many years to achieve revolutionary transformations in technology and the accompanying social and societal transformations. It is the type of research that Abraham Flexner advocated so passionately in his 1939 essay ‘The usefulness of useless knowledge’. Flexner was the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and the man who helped bring Einstein to the United States in 1933. He started writing the first draft of his essay in 1921; now, nearly 100 years later, its contents are proving strikingly relevant. ‘The obstructed pursuit of useless knowledge’, as Flexner characterises fundamental science, is currently under more pressure than ever before, squeezed by shrinking budgets and a demand for research that is required to lead to practical applications within the short term.

Science is just another opinion…
As I carried out my work in Amsterdam, I could hardly imagine a location that would have been more inspired and driven by the progressive schools of thought that emerged from the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. Scientists were seen as “servants of reason” and “seekers of truth”. They discussed models at length and passionately questioned each other’s theories in debates and published articles. A few theories that remained standing after vast, solid, intensive research that was repeated over and over are now considered collective facts that are undisputed. This presents a dramatic difference in comparison to what frequently happens on social media these days, which can be boiled down to this: science is really just another opinion, an opinion that holds just as much weight as any other opinion. In fact, it’s more than that: influenced by algorithms, that alternative opinion seems to be reaffirmed over and over again. Let us also not forget politics. Politicians, including heads of state, create smokescreens by rejecting facts that do not correspond to the convenience of their own political convictions. The President of the United States twists the truth and sows doubt by proclaiming opinions that are not based on established scientific facts, or are even in direct conflict with it, for instance regarding climate. And why? Probably not even because he does not believe in scientific progress. It simply isn’t convenient for him, in view of the promises he made to get elected. Or does he have a hidden agenda as well?

Distinguishing facts from fiction is becoming increasingly difficult, as it turns out. But is the field of scientific research itself not partly to blame for that? Just consider the instances of fraud that have been revealed in recent years. A number of fields have incurred major damage to their international reputation as a result. And what about that all-important principle of science: reproducibility? That aspect goes without saying – or you’d think so, anyway, but scientists often seem to find it less appealing to repeat their research. Apparently, that’s why experiments are repeated far too infrequently; even if the experiment is repeated, it does not always yield the same results as previous research, especially in the social sciences.
The pressure to publish frequently and garner media attention regularly plays a questionable role, as evidenced e.g. in the field of health studies. Recent research by Leiden University in the Netherlands shows that 20% of university press releases involved some form of exaggeration. These exaggerated press releases nearly always resulted in news reports that contained the same exaggeration. Post-truth, even among scientists?

The war on mortality
In the meantime, scientists are still hard at work figuring out the world around us. Exploration is deeply rooted in the human psyche; to explore is to survive. When you understand things, you can also try to influence them, or even change them to your benefit. Like the explorers of old, researchers look to the horizon and beyond, past the boundaries of mankind, of people as we know them now. They search for ways to cure diseases and correct genetic errors – in short, to become immortal. To wage that war on mortality, scientists research the human body, food, medicines, and the context in which we live. In his book ‘Homo Deus’ (2016), Yuval Noah Harari argues that people are trying, in their drive to achieve immortality and happiness, to elevate themselves to divine beings. In his opinion, that upgrade is taking place along three different channels: biological modification, cyborg technologies, and replacement of neural networks by algorithms. Much of the research I recently witnessed could indeed be viewed from that perspective. Whether we’re looking at gravity waves, robotics, nanomaterials, algorithms, genetic modifications, in every case, the practice of science also seems in some sense to be a fight against death itself.

Imagining the invisible
Scientific research is becoming more and more complex, and increasingly characterised by abstraction and scale. While working on my project, I realised that I was journeying from the very smallest elementary particles to immeasurably vast galaxies, and from algorithms in nature to algorithms performed by computers. Photographically, I could hardly imagine a bigger challenge: recording and imagining the invisible is a paradoxical undertaking. How can you find a way to visualise gravity waves, black holes, or elementary particles? Or complex algorithms, or DNA? I reached the conclusion that I should focus on the traces that lead, directly or indirectly, to the essence of specific research. Like the eyelash I found, which turned out to be a reference to fundamental genetic research involving the C-elegans nematode. Or the gorgeous graphical representation of statistical algorithms, developed to demonstrate that the Higgs boson truly exists.

Parallel universe
Classical science photography records and documents the research experiments that scientists conduct. They are used to test the formulas and abstract models with which they describe reality in mathematics, and attempt to “reconstruct” it. This form of photography is first and foremost in service to science. My own approach to documenting this project was a different matter entirely. In parallel to the scientific processes I witnessed, I conducted my photographic research, based largely on searching for traces and references. Using the images I took myself, data visualisations, and found footage, I created a parallel universe. Not a scientific universe defined by formulas and models, but a personal and artistic universe consisting of images that associatively refer to the essence of the research process that I observed. Consequently, it will often evoke more questions than answers. As Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”

Jos Jansen, 2018

From: Battlefields

There is one place in particular where our fingers are performing choreographies that were unknown just a few years ago.
A place where the physical world merges into a virtual world, the reversible into the irreversible, and the controllable into the uncontrollable.
A place that is also a symbol of our compulsive desire to be connected all the time, and of our new internal struggle: How much of our privacy are we willing to sacrifice?
Clicks, taps, pinches and swipes.
Traces of human behaviour... left like a battlefield.

Jos Jansen, 2015

From: Seeds - on the origin of food crops

As a documentary photographer, I examine in this project how new food crops are developed and how this process bears upon the world food problem. My point of departure is ‘seed’, the beginning of all life. What fascinates me is the duality of the process: on the one hand, the romanticism of the earthly and tactile and, on the other hand, the rationality of gene-driven biotechnology, where abstraction, complexity and scale have become key concepts.

I have discovered that Darwin’s natural selection has long been overtaken by high-tech plant breeding, and that there is a strong similarity between the nano level of the digital revolution and the DNA level at which ultramodern biotechnology is taking place.

Fascination, amazement and sometimes confusion dominated my inner experience during the making of Seeds. For instance, early on in the project, I interviewed a plant breeder who told me that his work was essentially accelerating evolution. I was both fascinated and astonished! And then I became utterly confused when I was shown around greenhouses with thousands of diseased and dead plants, whose deeper significance I didn't immediately understand.

Gradually, however, I began to discover the ?why? behind all these diseased and dead plants, and how they link up with the plant breeder’s remark about evolution. In order to be able to select a plant that is resistant to insect plagues in Africa or droughts in China, literally thousands of plants first have to be made sick, until eventually that one healthy plant remains with just that tiny bit of DNA that allows it to be the sole plant to survive – the chosen one.

These insights made me decide to focus the narrative of my documentary on one aspect only – how new food crops are bred that are resistant to pests and diseases, and can therefore contribute significantly to our future food supply. I show the perseverance with which crops – over many years and in numerous repetitive cycles – are crossed, bred, tested and selected again and again, so as to achieve that specific goal.

Behind the images in this project, quintessential questions arise. Who is actually in charge on this planet? Nature? Human beings? A god? Should humans stop interfering with evolution and go back to the authenticity and the idyll of small-scale farms and city farming? Or rather, is it humanity’s duty to steer evolution so that we can create enough food to feed the booming world population? Where do you draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable? Between natural and unnatural? And what does ‘natural’ mean anyway?

Jos Jansen, 2014

From: Entering the black box

The mysticism of technology
With this project, I wanted to get to the essence of high-tech research in the context of open innovation. Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve been intrigued by technology. As a child, I made small radio receivers. Later I became fascinated by hifi sets and the advent of colour television, and later still I was absolutely mesmerised by the developments of the digital revolution: compact discs, personal computers, DVDs, car navigation and smart phones. With each next step in the development of technology, I was intrigued by the new, unprecedented possibilities. I wasn’t so much interested in the technical details, but all the more so in the question of how a next generation of technology would be able to enrich my life with mystical and as yet unknown surprises.

High Tech Campus Eindhoven
I carried out my research in 2011 and 2012 at High Tech Campus in Eindhoven. This site accommodates some 100 research institutes and start-ups, employing about 8,000 knowledge workers. It forms part of Brainport Eindhoven, which in 2011 was proclaimed ‘the smartest region on earth’ by the Intelligent Community Forum in the United States. Every year, half of all Dutch patents originate here. High Tech Campus’s ecosystem builds on the thinking of economist Henry Chesbrough, which is largely based on the given that the complexity of groundbreaking, innovative, high-tech research – from micro-electronics to bio-technology – is increasing all the time. As a result, the costs of research are rising faster than its revenues, which encourages research institutes and companies to increasingly work together. For example, they share valuable research conditions, such as laboratories, equipment and skilled staff, or they cooperate in (pre-competitive) research projects. In all this, creating a culture of innovation, which stimulates the exchange of ideas, is crucial. Physical, cognitive and social proximity are important facilitating factors in this respect.

Dark zones
In my pursuit of the essence of groundbreaking high-tech research, the first challenge was to gain access to this ‘open’ but still heavily guarded world of innovation. When I finally succeeded – with the help of many – I was all the more touched by its mysticism. After I had mapped out the buildings, car parks and shared facilities (both above ground and underground), I gradually found my way to the magical atmosphere of the laboratories, getting closer and closer to the researchers and their equipment. Miniaturisation is an important driving force behind modern high-tech research, which increasingly takes place at the nano level and sometimes even at the atomic level. I slowly realised that I had made a transition from the square kilometre that is the size of the High Tech Campus site to a level that can only be made visible by means of scale models and mathematical formulas. This is the area that scientific anthropologist Bruno Latour refers to as ‘the black box’. It is also the place where, in his view, science becomes dark and ever less tangible. How, I asked myself, could I possibly represent something that is largely hidden from sight?

In an attempt to find an answer, I gradually started to see the three aspects of modern high-tech research that to me truly represent its essence: complexity, scale and abstraction. These three elements would form the basis of an associative and fragmentary story of mankind’s quest for high-quality innovative knowledge. For weeks on end, I observed researchers, wandering around in artificial landscapes, while constantly asking myself questions such as ‘What are they doing exactly?’, ‘How does it all come together?’ and ‘What’s the bigger picture?’ The complexity and abstraction were so immense that new questions kept popping up. What seemed to be smaller than small, when zooming in on it, turned out to be the size of galaxies at the nano level. And within these galaxies were, in all likelihood, new galaxies. I noticed how researchers and technology almost amalgamated, and how technology sometimes seemed to take over the position of the human being. My research into the mysticism of high-tech research eventually led me to the essential question about the relationship between technology and mankind: Who controls who?

Jos Jansen, 2012

A representation of open innovation: High Tech Campus in Eindhoven as a crucial intersection in the network of relations and joint ventures between universities, research institutes and high-tech companies in Western Europe. This image was created on the basis of details from Science-Metrix Inc., Canada.