You can’t make a call or send a text on your cell phone in Green Bank, West Virginia. Wireless Internet is outlawed, as is Bluetooth. As you approach the tiny town on a two-lane road that snakes through the Allegheny Mountains, the bars on your cell phone fall like dominoes, and the scan function on the radio ceases to work. The rusted pay phone on the north side of town is the only way for a visitor to reach the rest of the world. It’s a premodern place by design, devoid of the gadgets and technologies that define life today.
The reason for the town’s empty airwaves is visible the moment you arrive. It’s the Robert C. Byrd telescope (GBT), a gleaming white, 485-foot-tall behemoth of a dish.
It’s the largest of its kind in the world and one of nine in Green Bank, all
of them government owned and operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
The telescopes aren’t the ocular kind you’re probably thinking of. They’re radio telescopes, so instead of looking for distant stars, you listen for them. There’s a long line of astronomers all over the world who want to use the GBT, a telescope known to be so sensitive that it can pick up the energy equivalent of a single snowflake hitting the ground.
Such a highly tuned listening tool needs total technological silence to operate, so in 1958, the Federal Communications Commission established a one-of-a-kind National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000-square-mile area encompassing Green Bank where,
to this day, electromagnetic silence is enforced every hour of every day.
Residents who live within a ten-mile radius of the Green Bank observatory are allowed to use landline telephones, wired Internet, and cable televisions, but microwave ovens, wireless Internet routers, and radios are forbidden. You can have a cell phone, but you won’t get a signal.
Lately, because of how much its way of life diverges from the rest of America’s and whom that has attracted, Green Bank (pop. 143) has come to feel smaller than ever. For locals, the technology ban is a nuisance.
For others who come to Green Bank for their health, the town has become a refuge.
In 2007, Diane Schou, now 66, moved with her husband to Green Bank from Cedar Falls, Iowa,
hoping that living free of technology would relieve her relentless headaches that were caused by signals from a cell phone tower near her home. The Schous are members of a growing community who say they suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, caused by exposure to radio frequencies. The symptoms,
according to sufferers, also include nausea, insomnia, and chest pains. By 2010, roughly two dozen “electrosensitives” had moved to Green Bank.
At Green Bank Elementary-Middle School, right next door to the telescope, you’d expect to find teenagers bemoaning the unavailability of the cool gadgets they see on TV. But that’s not the case. According to one seventh grader, plenty of kids in Green Bank have smartphones, and although they can’t get a signal, they’ve found a work-around. By connecting to a home Wi-Fi network, kids don’t need a cell network to talk to their friends—they can just use the new texting functions in apps like Facebook’s Messenger and Snapchat. Teenagers and technology, it seems, will always find a way.
A force outside Green Bankers’ control may ultimately settle the clash
of old-timers and newcomers, of technology and tranquillity: the fate of the thing that started all the trouble in the first place—the telescope.
It’s funded entirely by the National Science Foundation, and in 2013, in a wave of belt tightening across the federal government, a committee recommended shutting down the campus. NSF hasn’t said whether it will accept the proposal, but a
decision is expected this year.
If Washington chooses to divest, and the observatory can’t find outside funding, it could close by 2017.
Some say that in the long run, that may be best for the town. But a shuttered telescope would obviously be a nightmare for the electrosensitives who are just making inroads into the locals.
Whatever happens to the telescope, Monique, one of the residents of the town, is pretty convinced that her version of the science will prevail and that future generations will see the folly of iPhones and laptops just like past ones did of asbestos and cigarettes.
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