The Mirage of a Town Without Cellphones

Top: The Green Bank Telescope (foreground) and the 140 Foot Telescope (background) at the Green Bank Observatory. Visual: GBO/AUI/NSF

Book Review: In “The Quiet Zone,” Stephen Kurczy investigates a West Virginia town largely cut off from modern technology.


NEAR THE TOWN OF Green Bank, a strange sign edges the two-lane road: “You Are Now Entering the West Virginia Radio Quiet Zone.” It’s not immediately apparent what those words mean, but they provide a clue to drivers whose phones have gone silent. The Quiet Zone means the law limits radio-wave broadcasts: No cell service, and theoretically a lack of conveniences like Wi-Fi, or certain wireless game controllers. And no microwaves unless they’re put in a protective casing. All these devices interfere with the science conducted by the Green Bank Observatory, home to a host of radio telescopes.

“The Quiet Zone” is also the title of a new book about the area by journalist Stephen Kurczy. Here, he thought, in the land of less technology, life might be simpler, and in line with his own desire for digital disconnection: Kurczy hasn’t owned a cellphone since 2009. Green Bank, he writes, might be “like a modern-day Walden that could free us from the exasperating demands of being always online and always reachable.” He set out to investigate what society might be like if we were all less accessible, looking to the residents of the Quiet Zone for the answer.

As the book unfolds, though, Kurczy loosens his grip on that idea: the Quiet Zone, he finds, is actually pretty loud, and plagued by problems similar to those in the outside world. And so Kurczy shifts his aim, attempting instead to understand why such an unusual set of residents — astronomers, white supremacists, dubious medical practitioners, people who say they’re allergic to radio waves, cultists, and murderers — arrived here. He shares that journey in visual prose peppered with frank dialogue and empathic descriptions of the four months he spent exploring Pocahontas County over a period of three years. “The area seemed tinged with magical realism, with an impossible menagerie of eccentrics congregating in the forest,” he writes. “How had so many random groups found their way to the same corner of West Virginia?”

A former sheriff gave perhaps the best answer. “To escape,” Kurczy summarizes. “To be left alone.” That may be true, but Kurczy’s journey forces him to reexamine the idea that disconnection is utopian, and that lack of technology means lack of complication.

The public-facing reason for the technological restrictions is the Green Bank Observatory, whose telescopes detect radio waves from space. Kurczy grounds readers with 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 create a radio-astronomy research center — but where?

With its low population, abundance of public land, and location in a mountain valley close to the nation’s capital, Green Bank seemed ideal. Soon, both the state of West Virginia and the Federal Communications Commission instituted radio-quiet rules for the area, at different radii, to protect the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

The rules, still extant, are strictest within 10 miles of the facility, theoretically barring connectivity like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. No one in town has cell service. Observatory visitors can’t use digital cameras once they pass a certain boundary. More-permissive guidelines limit fixed transmitters like cell towers and television broadcasters across a 13,000-square-mile area, each of which must be evaluated 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 hold two football fields inside its dish. Kurczy likens it to a “washbasin for Godzilla.” The instrument monitors pulsars, left behind by supernova explosions, using them to hunt for gravitational waves. It can see the effects of black holes at the centers of other galaxies, and stars in formation. It also searches for extraterrestrials.

But that work is threatened by earthly broadcasts. Terrestrial signals can easily drown out weak celestial ones, just as it’s hard to hear someone whispering next to a choir. The rules exist to shush the choir. “The restrictions were based on a simple premise: To listen, we have to hear,” writes Kurczy. “To unlock the mysteries of the universe, we have to be quiet.”…


F. Kaskais Web Guru

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