Amazing Places

Wireless Signals Are Banned in This Small West Virginia Town

If you're trying to play Pokemon Go in Green Bank, West Virginia, we have two things to say to you. First, kudos for sticking to your dream of being the very best, like no one ever was. Second, you'll probably want to go hunt Rhydons somewhere else — there are no wireless signals allowed in this town of 143. No internet, no cell phones. Even the automatic doors are viewed with suspicion.

Why Fry Your Wi-Fi?

That comment about the automatic doors? It wasn't a joke. There really was a store that had to downgrade its entryway because the even the faintest of radio signals can interfere with the most important resident of Green Bank: the largest steerable radio telescope in the world. The tiny town is situated right smack in the middle of the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000-square-mile (34,000-square-kilometer) region where Earthly signals are muted so that cosmic signals can be heard. It's actually been that way since 1958, but back then the astronomers only had to compete with "Peggy Sue" on the airwaves.

These days, it's almost easier to list what is allowed in Green Bank than what isn't. Cell phones are a no-go, obviously (you can bring yours, but it won't work), and so are most modern routers. You also can't use a baby monitor, or an automatic garage door, or a microwave, or a wireless doorbell. After all, the telescope is sensitive to changes as small as a billionth of a billionth of a millionth of a watt — that's the energy of a single snowflake reaching the ground. Almost any kind of electrical device can overwhelm that system, and it's up to specialists like Chuck Niday to track down the source of those disruptive signals. Some common culprits? Vacuums frequently give off sparks that can set the telescope off, as do space heaters and the spark plugs of gas-powered vehicles.

It's all so that the massive ear-on-the-sky can hear what's floating out there in the distant cosmos. The radio telescope is seriously huge (2.3 acres, or about one hectare) and it's taller than the Statue of Liberty. It needs all that size to track slight changes across the vastness of space. In January 2018, it made one of its most exciting discoveries ever when it identified organic molecules (meaning they were carbon-based) permeating interstellar space. We would never have discovered them if there had been even one person in the area who couldn't resist their Words With Friends addiction.

Way, Way Off the Grid

It isn't just scientists and lifelong residents in Green Bank — the city has become something of a mecca for people suffering from symptoms of electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS). It makes sense. If the ever-present wireless signals of modern life cause symptoms like skin rashes, upset stomachs, dizziness, and heart palpitations, then why wouldn't you want to live in the one place there aren't any? The only issue is that doctors aren't entirely convinced that EHS isn't entirely psychosomatic. Click that link and you'll find a wide variety of professional opinions, ranging from "Who cares if it's psychosomatic? Their suffering is real," to "EHS is a real disorder caused by electromagnetic frequencies," to "It's all in their heads, and acting like it's real prevents patients from discovering the true cause of their pain." Regardless, Green Bank stands as a respite from interference from the modern world — whether that's for the benefit of telescopes or humans.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas April 18, 2018

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