GREEN BANK — In a world filled with technology, you can find cell towers, smart meters and Wi-Fi on every block.
Well, almost every block.
There’s a place that claims to be the “Quietest Town in America.” It’s Wi-Fi-free. Green Bank, West Virginia is about 10 hours southeast of Chicago and a very “out of the way” place. The tiny town is nestled in the hills of West Virginia and has a population 145 – and growing.
People from all over the world have been traveling here since 1956 to do scientific research, of all things. Even our own Chicago-area universities like Northwestern, Loyola and University of Chicago have sent researchers to Green Bank.
Green Bank is about three hours outside of Roanoke, Virginia. The town has the largest fully-steerable radio telescope in the world. It is quite simply called the Green Bank telescope or the GBT. Locals refer to it as the “great big thing.” It’s 485 feet tall towering over the unspoiled landscape that protects it.
It is astronomical technology surrounded by mountains and green pastures. The polar opposites are surprisingly dependent on one another there.
The telescope weighs 17 million pounds and can see 85% of the celestial sphere. The staff who run it say it’s the best in the world. Even NASA calls on the GBT along with other scientists and astronomers from all over the globe. They are gathering data 13 billion light years away to study everything under the sun–including the sun.
From tracking comets to even searching for aliens, the GBT is considered the crowned jewel of astronomy. It is surrounded by six other smaller and older telescopes that capture images.
In order to operate them all, state and national governments had to create “quiet zones” or “white zones.” More plainly: radio free zones. There is no Wi-Fi allowed within 10 miles of the Green Bank Observatory. Electromagnetic fields trip up the telescopes.
That means no smart meters, no electric fences nor stoves so the telescopes can work. That also means no cell phones allowed in Green Bank.
Locals are just fine with it. They say they’ve gotten used to it and even call it “refreshing.”
Radio astronomy in Green Bank developed GPS and even Wi-Fi – the very thing it prohibits.
Pine trees line the road to the observatory help absorb some of the electromagnetic radiation from passing cars- their cell phones, their hot spots, their tire pressure gauges and more.
But the challenges increase as technology grows and closes in on the tiny town of Green Bank where the quiet zone is precious and protected by the mountains above. At least for now, the radio frequency silence is still a thing of the present-not yet a thing of the past.
People from Italy, Germany and Japan have been performing astronomical studies here for more than 60 years. But these days, the telescope is drawing people to Green Bank for an entirely different reason. They say the Wi-Fi-free zone is saving their lives.
They are moving here for their health and choosing to stay. Yes, some from Illinois.