Welcome to the hushed confines of Green Bank, W.Va., noted as “The Quietest Town in America.”
Within the tiny unincorporated hamlet of 143 residents, cell calls and texting are prohibited; car radios scroll across the dial in the vain search of a signal; and nary a television, wireless internet connection or microwave can be found.
The tiniest infractions of the electronics ban are ferreted out by a pair of RFI, or radio frequency interference, police who patrol the streets in a technologically equipped Dodge Ram pickup, reminiscent of “Ghostbusters,” to locate the stray malefactors.
About 10 years ago the scientific gendarmes detected a faint anomalous signal and traced it down to the electric heating pad in a backyard doghouse. The combination of a wet family pooch and non-waterproof blanket caused the heating pad to emit irregular bursts of energy. The RFI enforcers have also tracked down interference from arcing power lines, uncapped cable lines, varmints chewing through electrical wiring and one resident’s electronic doorbell.
Green Bank is nestled near the center of the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000-square-mile area embracing portions of West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland. Th e area was designated by the Federal Communications Commission in the 1950s to facilitate scientific research.
The reason for Green Bank’s scrupulous electronic quietude is a 485-foot behemoth outside of town: the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, or GBT, which scientifically uninitiated locals facetiously refer to as the “Great Big Thing.”
The GBT is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope and is dedicated to the tireless search for signals from outer space. The 2,004 receptor panels on the 2.3-acre concave collection dish are individually adjustable and can be focused to capture the slightest pulse emitted from the cosmos.
The telescope is exquisitely sensitive. “The types of energies we look at are less than the energy of a single snowflake falling on the earth,” said Director Karen O’Neil. In mathematic terms, that amounts to a billionth of a billionth of a millionth of a watt. Cellphones emit about three watts, hence their prohibition in the surrounding area.
The slightest extraneous charges can deluge the telescope’s sensitive equipment, drowning out the signals some project devotees have been waiting their entire careers to hear.
Therefore, only diesel vehicles are permitted within a mile of the GBT to avoid interference from spark plugs; the county sheriff’s department communicates on a predesignated frequency and cannot use mobile computers in its squad cars; and employees of the telescope and accompanying observatory interact on walkie-talkies.
Even the battery-operated fans sold in the facility’s gift shop were banned when it was discovered the energy waves from the souvenirs grossly distorted the observatory’s data.
The GBT, the largest of the 10 telescopes in and around the observatory campus, scans the skies about 6,500 hours a year, collecting, storing and categorizing signals for analysis. The observatory has done a yeoman’s service in shedding light on the origin and nature of the universe since it began science operations in 2001, including:
- mapping a hydrogen cloud hurtling toward the Milky Way at 150 miles per second
- detecting a supercluster of galaxies 500 million light years in diameter containing 100 million billion suns
- finding complex sugar molecules in space
The residents do not seem to mind the restrictions. They are satisfied with the throwback environment of a community consisting of early 20th century homes, quaint shops, a school, post office, library, barbershop and, most recently, a Dollar General, which provides Green Bank’s only grocery outlet within a 26-mile radius.
Resident Hanna Sizemore described the scene from her backyard view of the Allegheny Mountains. “We’re in a little bubble of the past here,” she said. “It’s kind of a little oasis.”
“If you work in Green Bank, it’s because you want this kind of life,” said Michael Holstine, the observatory’s business manager.
Consequently, the townsfolk are amused by the befuddlement of some of the area’s 25,000 annual tourists who cannot get cellphone coverage or Wi-Fi.
“Some people when they come here really freak out because they can’t have access to their little devices,” observed Jay Lockman, GBT’s principal scientist.
Others lament the incessant reliance some visitors place upon their communications gadgets.
“When they’re in the restaurant, often you’ll see two people having dinner together, but they’re both on their cellphones,” said resident Katherine Lafleur. “It’s heartbreaking just to see mothers who are not paying attention to their beautiful children.”
Green Bank is a mecca for those seeking to shield themselves from the painful effects of those very conveniences.
About a dozen “electrosensitives” have migrated to the area to escape the ubiquitous radiation and find healing for their symptoms.
They claim the frequencies inherent in modern technology cause them to suffer electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or EHS, a syndrome including recurrent headaches, dizziness, nausea, rashes, chest pains, fatigue, hair loss and speech difficulties.
The medical community has not recognized the syndrome, and some studies indicate the symptoms are psychosomatic.
But to some, the pain is real — and Green Bank is the cure.