# Why "Complexity" Science is Poorly Named

### A complexity science pioneer on the importance of simplicity

I have a new favorite essay on complexity science thanks to a recent episode of the Cabrera Research Lab podcast.1 The essay was written in 1996 by Murray Gell-Mann, recipient of the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics and co-founder of the Santa Fe Institute.2

In the piece, Gell-Mann argues that referring to the field he and his colleagues pioneered as “complexity” distorts the true nature of their work. The name obscures the important fact that understanding the *simplicity* of the underlying rules which leads to the emergence of complexity is at the core of their enterprise.

As an alternative, he proposed naming the field “Plectics”. The word plectics is derived from Greek via two Latin root words:

**plexus**meaning “braided” which eventually gave rise to the English word**complex****plicare**meaning “to fold” which is connected with**simplex**meaning “once-folded” and which eventually gave rise to the English word**simple**

Plectics would consist of *“the study of simplicity, complexity of various kinds, and complex adaptive systems, with some consideration of complex non-adaptive systems as well.”*

The discipline is concerned with:

The various attempts to

**define complexity;**The study of the roles of

and of classical and quantum information in the history of the universe**simplicity and complexity****;**The physics of

;**information**The study of

, including chaos theory, strange attractors, and self-similarity in**nonlinear dynamics**; and the study of**complex nonadaptive systems in physical science**”**complex adaptive systems…**

This perspective was eye-opening for me because it helped further clarify my understanding of the relationship between systems science and complexity science. For example, I immediately noticed that some of the important topics that I'm preoccupied with as a systems researcher weren't on the list.

The various attempts to

**define system**The “physics” (or properties and dynamics) of

**systems**The study of the role of “

**systemness**” in the history of the universe 3

Studying “complexity” never appealed to me as much as studying complex systems. And I’ve felt frustrated by how the boundaries between complexity science, complex systems science, and systems science are so heavily blurred in the academic literature and popular discussion.

But *plectics*, as described by Gell-Mann, is very precisely defined and compelling as a field of study. It is about the essential features (simplicity and complexity) which give rise to the unique dynamics and interactions we find in complex and complex adaptive systems.

It’s unfortunate that Gell-Mann’s call to rename the discipline was never heeded. But moving forward I’ll be thinking of myself as an enthusiastic student of plectics while I pursue my systems education and research.

“Let’s Call It Plectics, Murray Gell-Mann (1996)4I hope that it is not too late for the name "plectics" to catch on. We seem to need it.”—

Cabrera Lab (Director). (2024, July 3). *Episode #15: The July 4th Special: A More Perfect Union*. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ol04v1P2Xvk

*Chapter 19 “PLECTICS” | Edge.org*. (n.d.). Retrieved July 9, 2024, from https://www.edge.org/conversation/murray_gell_mann-chapter-19-plectics

Thornton, S. (n.d.). *Systemness—By Shingai—System Explorers*. Retrieved July 9, 2024, from https://systemexplorers.substack.com/p/systemness

Gell-Mann, M. (1996). Complexity at large. *Complexity*, *1*(5), 3–5. https://doi.org/10.1002/cplx.6130010502