Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the 1960’s, the publication of a single novel hardly seems notable. Yet, the debut in 1961 of Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, remains a landmark in the history of science fiction. In one sense, it foreshadowed the emergence of a counterculture whose dominant repercussions still resound in the popular mindset. But perhaps more interestingly, it introduced into the lexicon the term “grok”.

Definition: grok (grok) v. To perceive a subject so deeply that one no longer knows it, but rather understands it on a fundamental level.

The novel spins the tale of a Martian visitor acquiring knowledge about the earth, its history, and its cultures. However, despite accumulating a wealth of information, he still is unable to “grok” the earth. Similarly, science is in the business of acquiring knowledge about nature, its rules, and its principles. Unfortunately, like the man from mars, science still is unable to “grok” some fundamental issues regarding the nature of the universe.

Take for instance quantum mechanics, or the laws of physics at very fine distances. Although physics can transcribe the rules that quantum particles obey, it is unfortunately reticent on the actual meaning of these rules. Or, look at the recent sequence of the human genome. In a large sense, it represents a mere catalogue of information with little understanding of its biological implications. Finally, take one of the biggest mysteries, human consciousness. Although a wealth of knowledge about information processing in the brain exists, there still is little to be said on how the brain gives rise to conscious experience.

Despite the multitude of scientific achievements in the past century, knowledge still remains confused with understanding. Although the practical results of scientific endeavors may not require such a deep understanding, it is at least important for furthering an intellectual appreciation of our place in the universe. Hopefully, with the vanguard of science on the march, these deeper scientific issues will soon be grokked.

Grok and the Vanguard of Science

by Charles Lee

Feb. 2002

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