Cell phones, microwave ovens, garage door openers, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, baby monitors, wireless doorbells and other gadgets emitting electromagnetic energy are almost everywhere. These transmitters are ubiquitous except for in the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ).
In 1958, in anticipation of the wireless revolution, the United States government set aside 13,000 acres straddling the borders of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. At the center of the compound is the Robert G. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the largest land-based steerable object on Earth.
This gigantic telescope is shaped like a circular dish big enough to hold two acres of land. It is as tall as the Washington Monument and weighs 17 million pounds. Here astronomers observe the universe by studying radio waves emitted by stars, vanishing comets and faraway galaxies. Over the years, the telescope has played a key role in understanding the behavior of pulsars, in searching for extraterrestrial life, and in examining the hydrogen gas that surrounds the Milky Way Galaxy.
The telescope is reported to be sensitive to “a billionth of a billionth of a Watt... the energy of a snowflake hitting the ground.” It is so sensitive that automobiles are banned within a mile of the telescope because of the electromagnetic emissions from their spark plugs. The entire area is regularly patrolled by specially equipped trucks to enforce the quiet.
There are no physical indications that one is approaching the NRQZ, but all rings and pings of smartphones are silenced when entering it. This is because the telescope’s readings can be confused by Wi-Fi or cell signals, thus compromising the Observatory’s research. Keeping the noise down is becoming more difficult because the wider geographic region around the NRQZ is about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined and has attracted thousands of people who want to escape modern-day noise. It has also become a refuge for those who believe they suffer from the disputed medical condition called electromagnetic hypersensitivity and even a haven for neo-Nazis.
As a journalist who has not carried a cell phone for ten years, Stephen Kurczy became intrigued by what he thought would be an idyllic life in the quiet zone. He decided to investigate the unique region and interviewed or listened to stories from long-time residents and those who have sought sanctuary in the silence.
Listening to locals, Kurczy found all was not idyllic in the quiet zone. He heard conspiracy theories and reports of unsolved deaths. He drank illegal moonshine and discussed political and social issues with the locals all in an effort to grasp the folkways and mores of this unusual place. He also studied the school system, health care resources, and the ways people communicate with one another in the absence of digital technology. Kurczy was especially impressed by the neighborliness of the inhabitants, the willingness of neighbors to help one another. All these incidents are retold in the book to give a broad picture of this section of Appalachia.
The author writes a stirring depiction of a rare place, which at times is beautiful and other times eerie and mysterious. The Epilogue discusses how the area has responded to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Kurczy calls for readers to seriously consider the pervasive role technology plays in their lives and also the innate human need for quiet. This is a fascinating, accessible read even though it addresses a technological subject. At times it reads like science fiction or a mystery, but it is well researched and documented and should appeal to a wide audience.
About the Author: Steven Kurczy graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The award-winning journalist’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Economist, and other outlets. Dey St., an imprint of William Morrow, is the publisher of this 336-page book.
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