Using Simplicity

By George M. Whitesides

For more than five decades, I have worked in academic research. The questions I and my colleagues – graduate students, postdocs, and collaborators – addressed in the beginning were “academic”, meaning that they focused purely on curiosity. They were usually great fun, but often seemed a little other-worldly. More recently, I have become interested in how best to make university research both intellectually interesting (that is, science for the sake of understanding) and practically useful (that is, technology that works). When the two occur together – or at least in the same project – the result is research centered in what is called “Pasteur’s quadrant”: these are problems of major societal importance for which the science base to generate a solution does not yet exist. The problems in Pasteur’s quadrant raise philosophical and practical issues about the value of sophisticated, complex research, relative to research guided by the idea of a simple (functional) solution. My current belief is that while complexity can be beautiful, simplicity works better.