George Whitesides: The Scientist Who Advocates Simplicity

George Whitesides is an extremely influential scientist who's made interesting reflections on various topics. Among them, are the concepts of complexity and simplicity. We examine his ideas.
George Whitesides: The Scientist Who Advocates Simplicity
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 17 March, 2023

George Whitesides is one of the most important scientists in the world today. He’s certainly considered to be one of the most influential chemists. In fact, in 2006 he was listed as the most widely read and cited chemist by the international scientific community.

However, what does a scientist in this area have to contribute to the social and personal world? In his case, a great deal. His ideas about knowledge and thought are fascinating.

One of the ideas that George Whitesides insists on is simplicity. Although it may not seem like it, this concept is endemic in today’s societies. This might sound contradictory. After all, in many ways, we live in complex times.

Indeed, today, social reality is complex. Life has certain complexities that didn’t exist before. Moreover, never before has science been able to delve into the complexities of the universe, matter, biology, etc. So, why is George Whitesides so interested in simplicity? Let’s find out.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler than that.

-Albert Einstein-

stressed girl
Life has acquired a complexity that didn’t exist before. For this reason, Whitesides advocates simplicity.

The KISS principle

George Whitesides is a scientist from the United States, a country that also gave rise to the so-called KISS principle. This is the acronym for the expression Keep it simple, stupid! (KISS). It suggests that things should be kept as simple as possible, both in terms of systems and design.

It’s thought that the first time this expression was used was in the United States Navy, by aeronautical engineer Kelly Johnson. He was making reference to the devices and weapons of war. He advocated that their use and maintenance be as simple as possible since, in combat conditions, there was no time, nor opportunity, to get entangled with those issues.

Ultimately, this ended up being one of the basic parameters of production. The goal was and still is to facilitate the so-called user experience. In effect, it’s to make it easy for one person to handle things. However, in the world of knowledge, George Whitesides notes that this doesn’t always seem to apply.

George Whitesides: complexity and simplicity

George Whitesides claims that complexity has developed increasingly more in the field of science. Indeed, almost all scientists love complexity and don’t seem to make an effort to focus on simplicity at all. He defines complexity as a system with components that interact with each other.

One example is the traffic system in a city. It consists of roads, highways, signaling systems, drivers, and vehicles. Each of these elements has, in itself, a complexity. In effect, a series of elements that interact with each other. For example, an automobile is a device with parts that interact with others that makes it move. If one of those parts is damaged, it causes problems in the car. For instance, if it stalls, it alters the entire traffic system in certain ways.

According to Whitesides, simplicity has three characteristics: it’s repeatable, predictable, and reliable. Repeatable means that it always operates in the same way. This leads to it being predictable because it always works with the same logic. Consequently, it’s reliable. For example, a light switch. If you press it, the light turns on or off, depending on the position of the switch. The same thing always happens.

Simplicity, science, and life

George Whitesides points out that, while technology has emphasized making things as simple as possible, when it comes to science, the same hasn’t happened. He claims that, in societies like North America, in reality, there are no needs, only desires. This is because modern life has solved, to a certain extent, almost all the problems of everyday life.

For example, if a person needs a urine test, the health system allows them to obtain it with a simple procedure. But, in a really poor country, this would be almost impossible. For instance, there’d be nobody to take the sample, nor laboratories to process it. One solution would be to design a system similar to that of pregnancy tests, but extremely cheaply. A paper tape that turns a certain color, depending on the substances contained in a few drops of urine. But, this hasn’t been done.

All of the above is summarized in the central idea that George Whitesides wants to convey: simplicity is fundamental to solving practical problems. The goal should be that any kind of complexity can be ‘packaged’, so to speak, into a system that’s repeatable, predictable, and reliable. It applies to problems, both big and small, as well as to life itself.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Wood, J. (2006). Keep it simple, stupid!. Materials Today, 9(10), 1.
  • Morin, E. (2004). La epistemología de la complejidad.
  • Whitesides, G. M. (2018). Curiosity and science. Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 57(16), 4126-4129.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.