NRAO and life in the Quiet Zone
“There are times when silence has the loudest voice” – Leroy Brownlow
Visitors swarm year-round to Pocahontas County to visit its many and varied attractions, from Snowshoe Mountain Resort to local fairs and festivals.
Many people make for much noise.
In the wintertime, the mountain’s lodging facilities, bars and restaurants fairly ring with a din of excitement, while in warmer months the streets of our towns are often filled with amplified music, laughter and the raised voices of people having fun.
A different kind of energy can be found in and around the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, where not only can be heard the proverbial pin drop, folks there can actually detect the sound of a snowflake falling to the ground. And the silence of the Quiet Zone has been heard around the world.
If there is a sign on the property that reads, “No Spark Plugs,” you know you’re onto a story.
When that story is told again and again, by different voices in different lands and languages, the telling of it becomes a story in itself.
But first – what exactly goes on at the NRAO, and what does it mean to us?
NRAO Business Manager Mike Holstine was gracious enough to condense the answer down to nearly layman’s terms.
“At its core, the work at NRAO is pure basic research of the universe at radio wavelengths,” Holstine said. “We design, build and use highly- sophisticated radio instruments and receivers to detect the extremely faint radio waves given off by astronomical and molecular sources to understand the processes occurring in space and how they affect our understanding of space and time.
“Astronomy is also a gateway science, as we all use the night sky at an early age to kick-start our curiosity about the world we live in and our place in it. This leads most everyone to various fields of interest as we mature in our studies throughout our lives.
“Practical offshoots of radio astronomy are and have been medical imaging, such as that in MRIs, GPS receivers in vehicles and for personal use, mapping software, and, believe it or not, the development of WiFi technology – which is a bane to radio astronomy research.”
Not only WiFi, but cellphone signals interfere with the telescopes’ observations.
On November 8, the Sunday morning Today show had a brief report about Green Bank titled, “Inside the town where WiFi and cellphones are illegal.”
Are Wi-Fi and cellphones illegal in the Quiet Zone?
“Indeed, they are,” Hostine said. “WV State Code 37A – West Virginia Radio Astronomy Zoning Act – prohibits any electrical interference to any radio astronomy observation facility in the state within a 10-mile radius of said facility. There are various levels of electrical field strength noted in the law, but suffice it to say that most people who have wireless Internet are violating the law. Due to the WVRAZ, cell service within the 10 mile radius is pretty much never going to happen, although we have been able to help with the design of systems, such as the one at Snowshoe, so they could work. Snowshoe happens to be within the 10 mile radius.”
Despite the fact that his day job is negatively affected by WiFi and cell phones, Holstine is well-known as the most vocal proponent for fiber optic Internet in the county.
“With a fiber optic Internet system, it is also possible to provide some cell service to various areas within the zone and county that can’t have it with big towers,” he said. “That’s another reason I’m pushing for fiber infrastructure. It’s a way to help people get some relief from this prohibition.”
Today is just one of the latest in a very long list of media outlets that has found its way to Pocahontas County, and, in particular, to the Quiet Zone.
Teams of writers, reporters and cameramen have quietly moved in and out of the area, pretty much unbeknownst to all but the staff and a few residents of Green Bank.
Many American-based radio, TV and print public Many American-based radio, TV and print publications such as NPR, the Smithsonian Channel, Travel Channel, Scientific American, National Geographic, Slate Magazine, Washingtonian Magazine, The Atlantic, Discovery, Fusion TV/Univision, as well as the tried and true ABC, NBC and CBS and their affiliates have made the trek to this quiet place.
It comes as no surprise that the “quietness” would be of interest here at home, but the list of foreign outlets is quite impressive, and it surely took great effort to find their way into what must seem to them “the middle of nowhere.”
In November, the NRAO hosted a TV crew from the Ukraine.
Other outlets that have reported on life in and around Green Bank and the NRAO’s research include Al Jazeera; Agence France-Presse; German-based Spiegel Online and Die Welt Newspaper; TF1 French News Agency; French 2 Public TV; BBC and BBC3 Radio; Australia Broadcasting and The Feed – Australia; German TV/ Com-berry; Voice of America – China; Marcom Visual Creation, Inc. – Japan TV, and more.
What is the draw?
The mystery, the unique and the unknown – unlocking secrets of the universe through “time travel,” the oddity of living in this day and age without cellphones and wireless Internet, and the influx of folks seeking relief from electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
In her National Geographic article, Shasha Ingler wrote, “It is not a technological backwater. On the contrary, it is the home of one of the marvels of the space age – The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope.”
For the past 50 years, top scientists, astronomers, researchers and students from all over the world have had access – on-site and remote – to that “marvel of the space age.”
“We’ve been able to peer back to just after the Big Bang, 13.9 billion to 14 billion years ago,” Holstine said in an interview with NBC. “We need quiet to gather all the signals that are being supplied to us by the universe.”
The site includes other telescopes, each one of them important in their own right: the 140 foot, Green Bank Interferome ter, 20 meter Geodetic, the 40 foot, as well as historic telescopes – the Jansky Antenna, Reber Telescope, Ewen Purcell-Horn, Tatel Telescope and the 300 foot.
As advances are made in science, the town has somewhat remained the same, hence, the title of an article in The Atlantic Magazine – “The town where high tech meets a 1950s lifestyle.”
“If you work in Green Bank, it’s because you want this kind of life,” Holstine said.
Telescopes and cell phones end up in every conversation and much can be read in a headline – “Time traveling telescope is iPhone killer” is the title of a Bloomberg Business article about the NRAO.
“The telescope has the sensitivity equivalent to a billionth of a billionth of a millionth of a watt – the energy given off by a single snowflake hitting the ground,” Holstine said in a BBC interview. “Anything man-made would overwhelm that signal.”
The establishing of an environment conducive to detecting those faint signals has attracted “electro-sensitives” to the area.
Slate Magazine’s Joseph Stromberg wrote about this ailment in an article titled, “Refugees of the Modern World.”
In it he writes, “Electro-sensitives are moving to a cellphone-free town. But is this disease real? They say they suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity or EHS – a disease not recognized by the scientific community.”
The Feed – Australia published an article about EHS, as well – “Is electromagnetic hypersensitivity real?” and the Washington Magazine covered the stories of Green Bank area EHS sufferers in its article, “The town without WiFi.”
There have been pages and pages printed of positive take-aways by our national and international visitors.
The BBC News Magazine reported that in the quiet zone, “residents live a very different kind of life from most other Americans. There is a strong sense of community where conversations aren’t interrupted by phone calls, status updates or notifications.”
Many others have told the story of the Quiet Zone, and the list continues to grow.
Research is ongoing with regard to EHS, observers will continue to uncover the secrets of the galaxies, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) will continue as well, thanks to the generosity of Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who added $100 million to the coffers for an initiative called “Breakthrough Listen.”
The GBT will be one of three telescopes in the world used in the project.
Jorge Ramos and Dan Lieberman, of Fusion TV/Univision America, penned an article and filmed a video about the area that is sometimes referred to as “the quietest place in North America.”
“Quite Please. I spent a week in a town without WiFi or cell service. This is how I survived.”
After a rough start to their visit, the writers found “The Upside:”
“By the end of the trip, I had finally broken my habit of reaching for my cell- phone every chance I got. It took the entire week to realize that being freed from my tech addiction was a good thing. I was listening to people we interviewed, really listening, instead of having one eye on my phone for texts and emails. I was present.
“We tend to believe technology can make us stronger,” the article continued, “but our dependency on it can be a weakness. Life in Green Bank slowed down, and that was OK. If there’s one thing I learned from my week in the Quiet Zone it’s that in the land of #latergram, everything can wait.”
Green Bank is a very unique place – perhaps viewed as being in touch and out of touch at the same time:
“A place where radio-phobes and physicists have a common interest. For them, radio-free life is a good life, and it’s only possible in the Quiet Zone.” – CBS Sunday Morning
For more information, visit nrao.edu/