Back to the stars

The universe is wider than the World Wide Web

For those who find themselves wide-eyed and open-mouthed before an endless sky, struck by constellations twinkling some distant lullaby, outer space can seem more than a pretty display. It's a frame so evocative it prompts the most profound questions about life.

We must not stifle that natural fascination, insists Paul Levinson in his latest book, "Realspace." "If humans do not continue to search in the physical, real space of the universe, and instead continue to explore solely in the cyber, cerebral, virtual world of the Web, or video games, or the cinema, they might strangle the spark that is the core of happiness - even survival."

But since its inception, the space program has done little more than sputter along. The problem, insists the Fordham University professor, who spoke with the Monitor by telephone, is that the space program has been spun as a way for the US to flex its military muscle.

"If the goal was to get to the moon before the Soviets and establish ascendancy in space, the motive no longer exists," he says. "What's missing is a forthright connection to the deepest philosophical and spiritual reasons for going into space. That motivation has been the bedrock of religions - and even science - for thousands of years. That's what the movement of space must be tied to."

As a media communications professor and the author of "Digital McLuhan," Dr. Levinson may seem an unlikely candidate for a book on intergalactic travel. But he points to a natural connection: technology. "You can't study communications media and the impact of technology without looking at technology as the embodiment of human ideas," he says. "That's what space travel is - an embodiment of our desire to get off this planet."

But society is opting for cerebral instead of real exploration, he warns. "It's an imbalance." He likens the approach to being holed up in an apartment: Not only is one confined to the space of the apartment, but one's view of life outside is distorted by that narrow perspective.

"If you think about the fact that planet earth ... is just one little speck in the infinite universe," he says, "then although it's certainly possible that something on this little speck can tell us what the universe as a whole is like, there are an enormous number of things we know nothing about, or that are wrong or distorted because we have no perspective on them."

Levinson wasn't a bit miffed when, as a 10-year-old, he watched the Soviets launch Sputnik. "Something in my brain clicked, and I said, 'I'm going to write something that will inspire in people the need to ... explore the universe.' "

With unbridled enthusiasm for all things distant and glittery, and chapter titles like "Real robots don't cry" and "Bicycling into outer space," Levinson's book offers an irresistible perspective.

"It's so hard to see what's going on in one's life and in one's environment just from being in one tiny place," he says. "It's so easy to mistake that place for the whole world. You get lulled into the sense that that's all there is."

Elizabeth Armstrong is on the Monitor staff.

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