The mirage of a city without cell phones

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Green Bank Radio Telescope, West Virginia, 2015. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith / US Library of Congress, public domain


  • NOTlisten to the city of Green Bank, a strange sign lines the dual carriageway: “You are now entering the West Virginia radio silence zone. “
  • The public reason for the technological restrictions is the Green Bank Observatory, whose telescopes detect radio waves from space.
  • But the area is actually quite noisy, with an unusual group of inhabitants – astronomers, white supremacists, dubious doctors, people who say they are allergic to radio waves, cultists and murderers.

Near the town of Green Bank, a strange sign lines the dual carriageway: “You are now entering West Virginia Radio Quiet Zone.” The meaning of these words is not immediately obvious, but they do provide a clue to drivers whose phones have gone silent. The Quiet Zone means that the law restricts broadcasts over radio waves: no cellular service, and theoretically a lack of amenities like WiFi or certain wireless game controllers. And no microwave unless they are put in a protective case. All of these devices interfere with the science being conducted by the Green Bank Observatory, which houses a multitude of radio telescopes.

The quiet zone is also the title of a new book on the region by journalist Stephen Kurczy. Here, he thought, in the land of less technology, life could be simpler, and in accordance with his own desire for digital disconnection: Kurczy hasn’t owned a cell phone since 2009. Green Bank, he writes, could to be “like a -day Walden who could free us from the maddening demands of always being online and always reachable.” He set out to investigate what society might look like if we were all less accessible, turning to the residents of the Quiet Zone for the answer.

As the book unfolds, Kurczy loosens his grip on this idea: The Quiet Zone, he finds, is actually quite noisy and plagued with similar issues to the outside world. And so Kurczy changes his focus, instead trying to figure out why such an unusual group of locals – astronomers, white supremacists, dubious doctors, people who say they are allergic to radio waves, cultists and murderers – got here. He shares this journey in visual prose interspersed with candid dialogue and empathetic descriptions of the four months he spent exploring Pocahontas County over a three-year span.

“The area seemed tinged with magical realism, with an impossible menagerie of eccentrics gathering in the forest,” he wrote. “How did so many random groups find their way to the same corner of West Virginia?” “

Perhaps a former sheriff gave the best answer. “To escape,” Kurczy sums up. “To be left alone. That may be true, but Kurczy’s journey forces him to reconsider the idea that disconnection is utopian and that lack of technology means no complication.

The public reason for the technological restrictions is the Green Bank Observatory, whose telescopes detect radio waves from space. Kurczy bases readers on a brief but compelling history of radio astronomy: In 1931, scientist Karl Jansky accidentally discovered radio waves from space and presented his findings two years later. The field took off after World War II, and by the mid-1950s the National Science Foundation was ready to establish a center for radio astronomy research – but where?

With its small population, abundance of public land, and location in a mountainous valley near the nation’s capital, Green Bank seemed ideal. Soon, the state of West Virginia and the Federal Communications Commission instituted radio silence rules for the region, at different radii, to protect the National Radio Astronomical Observatory (NRAO).

The rules, still in force, are the strictest within 16 km1 of the installation, theoretically prohibiting connectivity such as WiFi and Bluetooth. No one in town has cell service. Visitors to the observatory cannot use digital cameras once they have exceeded a certain limit. More permissive guidelines limit fixed transmitters such as cell phone towers and television broadcasters to an area of ​​33,670 km², each of which must be assessed for its effect on the observatory before approval.

Today, the flagship instrument is the Green Bank Telescope, taller than the Statue of Liberty and wide enough to contain two football fields inside its dish. Kurczy compares it to a “sink for Godzilla”. The instrument monitors pulsars left behind by supernova explosions and uses them to chase gravitational waves. He can see the effects of black holes in the center of other forming galaxies and stars. He’s also looking for aliens.

But this work is threatened by terrestrial emissions. Earthly signals can easily drown out weak celestial signals, just as it is difficult to hear someone whispering next to a choir. The rules exist to silence the choir. “The restrictions were based on a simple principle: to listen, we must hear,” writes Kurczy. “To unravel the mysteries of the universe, we must be silent.”

Whenever the Observatory runs into existential difficulties – as it has in recent years, when it parted ways with the NRAO, a controversy that Kurczy recounts without boring readers with bureaucratic details – people start to worry about the survival of the Quiet Zone. The facility, which was once fully funded by the National Science Foundation, now receives only part of its budget from this government source, with the rest coming from private partnerships with groups like the North American Observatory of NanoHertz. for gravitational waves and the Breakthrough Listen project. , who is involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Kurczy, in investigation mode, seeks to understand why the area may not be in acute danger even though the observatory is: a nearby National Security Agency outpost called Sugar Grove, which appreciates radio silence for surveillance . “Sugar Grove was like the bigger, stronger brother protecting his little brother at Green Bank,” he wrote, placing the situation in political context with other astronomical ties to the military and intelligence complex.

Despite the big stick, staying silent has never been easy. Today it is Sisyphus. Sources of radio interference are pervasive and desirable from a social, economic and educational perspective. EMITT, the observatory’s electromagnetic interference tracking truck, whose instruments track illegal radio waves, helps verify their influence. “It reminded me of the ‘Ghostbusters’ phantom hunting vehicle,” writes Kurczy.

But he notes that observatory officials now mainly monitor interference, rather than shutting down broadcasts from its neighbors. “If they find a house that is particularly bad, then they will bring it to my attention and I will take care of it,” the observatory’s commercial director, who has since retired, told Kurczy. “By that,” explains Kurczy, “he meant he could strike up a conversation with the offender and politely explain the observatory’s need for radio silence.”

The observatory tries to achieve compliance through education, explains the then commercial director, but “we don’t have the staff to do other enforcement actions.” This passivity becomes evident when Kurczy climbs into EMITT: “Within five square miles of the telescopes, we counted over 200 WiFi signals,” explains Kurczy. The quiet area is therefore quite noisy.

Kurczy has discovered a group less likely to break the rules: the “electrosensitive,” who think they are primarily allergic to radio waves. The World Health Organization does not recognize electromagnetic hypersensitivity as a medical diagnosis. Nonetheless, from the mid-2000s people started moving to Green Bank because they thought the radio waves made them sick, and today their numbers have grown to over 100, Kurczy estimates.

Sensitive people are good observatory neighbors, unlikely to set up WiFi networks. Kurczy eventually develops a skepticism of the disease – noting that electrosensitive people “seemed to be running away from something in their lives outside of electromagnetic radiation” – but he is sympathetic to their possible motives. At one point, he wonders if the original electro-sensitive resident’s reaction to cell service and WiFi was an “intense manifestation of the kind of technological overload we all experience at one point or another.” Although she was an extremist, there was something very human about her quest for calm.

Spies and sensitive intrigue Kurczy, and he explores their influence on the region, as well as the complications of disconnection, such as students without internet infrastructure and risky emergency services. The county – whose largest employers are health care, education, hospitality, and government – has a median household income of about $ 41,000, compared to the U.S. average of about 69 $ 000.

The quiet zone also examines the dark side of Pocahontas County. “It did not occur to me that a community bathed in calm could be anything other than idyllic,” he concedes. And yet, he discovers Patch Adams, the clown doctor made famous by the eponymous film, who took millions of dollars to build an innovative rural hospital that would never have been built. Unsolved murders cast shadows in the forest. The remains of a once powerful neo-Nazi group, previously headquartered here, live in the hills.

“The vision that attracted me turned out to be a mirage,” he writes. The Quiet Zone, he learns, is no modern day Walden.

Kurczy tends to interpret these more sordid sides as symptoms of the Quiet Zone itself, rather than examples of general human wickedness – as can happen when you first see a place as inherently other. He never quite recognizes that most of the places you look closely enough will be a small-scale version of the larger society. The quiet zone demonstrates, whether inadvertently, the fractal nature of civilization – smartphones or not.

Ultimately, however, Kurczy comes to appreciate the intrinsic worth of such a strange and barely connected community. “For the electrosensitive seeking pain relief, for astronomers in need of calm skies, for hippies desiring a peaceful landscape, for tech-addicted tourists forced to disconnect, the Quiet Zone was an unexpected refuge,” he writes. . “It was an escape, at its best, from ourselves. “

Sarah Scoles is a Denver-based freelance science journalist and author of the books “Making Contact”, “They’re Already Here” and the upcoming “Mass Defect”. From 2010 to 2012, she was responsible for public education at the Green Bank facility of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

This article was originally published on Darkness. Read the original article.


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