If you were driving through Green Bank, West Virginia, your phone would get no reception. Your car radio would search endlessly for a station, never finding one. As you drove down the town's streets, past its lone post office and barber shop, you'd see no traffic lights at all. You might start to think time had stopped decades ago in Green Bank. But the reality is that this quiet town harbors one of the most sophisticated pieces of technology on Earth — the Green Bank Telescope.
Standing 450 feet tall and weighing 16 million pounds, the Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest steerable radio telescope. Scientists from all over travel here to listen to ancient sounds coming from the farthest corners of the universe — things like exploding galaxies, pulsars and superbubbles. They're researching how the universe began and where it's headed. And for it all to work, they need absolute radio silence. Even the most innocuous of radio use can throw off or completely ruin a data set, and so the town strictly prohibits the use of almost all wireless devices.
"At best, you weed through your data, trying to toss out the interfering signals," Jay Lockman, the principal scientist of the Green Bank Telescope, said to CNN. "At worst, it just kills your work completely."
(Quick example: A cellphone emits a signal of about 3 watts. Meanwhile, the signals coming from an exploding galaxy millions of light-years away are about a billionth of a billionth of a watt. Using a cellphone near the telescope is like screaming “BRAVO!” through a megaphone during a symphony.)
Green Bank resides within the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000-square-mile area in West Virginia, Virginia and a small part of Maryland wherein all types of radio transmissions are heavily restricted by the government. The transmissions that are allowed within this zone must operate at reduced power and use highly directional antennas. Restrictions are most strict within a couple miles of the telescope. Researchers avoid interfering with signals by driving only diesel-powered automobiles that don’t have spark plugs, and communicating with each other on walkie talkies set to a specific channel. But getting residents to comply with these rules is a different task altogether, one that’s left in part to Jonah Bauserman.
Bauserman is one of the world’s few “radio policemen.” In a white Dodge Ram pickup outfitted with antennas, receiver, Doppler system and spectrum analyzer, he patrols the quiet streets of Green Bank. He looks for people using electronic devices — cellphones, microwaves, even doorbells. If he catches someone using one of these, he can prosecute. And though he hasn’t had to prosecute yet, residents have been known to unplug their microwaves when they hear his pickup roaring down the roads near their homes.
A few residents have confessed to having Wi-Fi. But Bauserman tries to solve problems non-invasively, usually opting in these cases to make sure astronomers switch to different frequencies so their data won’t be compromised.
"We don't want to have a riot on our hands,” he said.
Still, the 25,000 tourists who visit the town annually to see the telescope pose a particular challenge to Bauserman and the one other “radio police man” in town.
"Some people, when they come here, really freak out because they can't have access to their little devices," Lockman said. "To tell you the truth, it seems pretty strange and annoying to see people always diddling with their devices and not paying attention to what's going on around them."
Also somewhat concerning to locals is the recent influx of "electrosensitives,” which are people who believe electromagnetic frequencies cause illnesses. Some Green Bank residents fear this is a sign that the town will be turned into something of a novelty vacation spot — a marketable refuge from “connected” America.
But for now, Green Bank is America’s quietest town. And hopefully it stays that way for a while so scientists can hear and study some truly awesome sounds from the distant corners deep space…and not the sounds of someone ordering a pizza.
To learn more about the Green Bank Telescope, check out the video below courtesy of Vice: