Hitting the Books: How a radio telescope cost this West Virginia town its modernity

28th August, 2021.      //   General Interest  // 
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Deep within the heart of Appalachia, modern science and America’s bucolic past meet at a novel crossroad of scientific discovery and luddite lifestyles. The Quiet Zone, by journalist Stephen Kurczy, is that the story of a sleepy community that hosts the Green Bank radio reflector. But the presence of this installation comes at a price: thanks to the telescope’s exceeding sensitivity, virtually every device and appliance that emits radio waves, Wi-Fi signals, or microwave radiation is banned for square miles around. which means that Green Bank, Mountain State has about the maximum amount tech today because it did within the 1950’s (maybe even a bit less) — and a few people pretty much prefer it that way. But not a soul. within the excerpt below, Pocahontas County attorney, Robert Martin, recounts the challenges of attempting to modernize the region without loosing a horde of gentrifiers upon it additionally.

The Quiet Zone cover. Excerpted from the book THE QUIET ZONE: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence by Stephen Kurczy. Copyright © 2021 by Stephen Kurczy. From Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.


For every electrosensitive who wanted radio quiet, there have been probably 100 residents who wanted WiFi and cell service, and that they elected the county’s officials. In early 2018, the Pocahontas County Commission passed a resolution in support of cell service throughout the county, a challenge to the very notion of a Quiet Zone. The commission assigned its attorney, Robert Martin, to contact all major telecommunications providers asking them to take a position in Pocahontas.

“I’m doing my boundary to urge another company in here,” Martin told me within the spring of 2018. He’d invited me to his house to debate the new cell service ordinance, and that we were swigging Bud Lights at his table.

“How many cell companies have you ever written to?” I asked.

“All of them,” he said. “I promised the businesses that we’ll get everybody within the damn county to join up with them. I’ll sign on first! . . . I wrote a letter to everybody and said, ‘We have shit for cellphone service here, we wish you to come back in here, we’ll partner with you, we’ll facilitate your however we will. are available in here.’”

At our feet were two boxers and a basset. within the adjacent mudroom was a 250-pound Vietnamese potbellied pig named Pig, who was snoring. Pig knew a way to open the exterior door and pull a blanket over himself. “I’m verity image of West Virginia, aren’t I?” Martin laughed. “I got a pig living within the house.” Despite his home literally being a pigsty, Martin was always the simplest dressed at county meetings, usually wearing tight designer jeans, leather boots, and a crisp shirt, top buttons undone and some chest hairs curling out. A blustery guy, Martin was once jailed in Marlinton for contempt of court for arguing with a circuit judge. He had a history of stepping into fights at American state University football games. For years, he’d also operated a hotel in Belize, paying “tens of thousands of dollars in bribes” and putting the payments on his tax returns therefore the U.S. government could see the corruption he was managing (even if he was admitting to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act). Martin discovered as a dogged lawyer who knew the way to get things done. And he wanted cell service.

“You seen that commercial saying Verizon has more coverage than anyone else?” he asked me. “Pause and appearance at it real closely, and you’ll see right where Pocahontas County is because almost the whole Eastern Seaboard is all yellow [signifying cell coverage] and right there in southeastern American state there’s this hunk about this big—it’s Poca-fucking-hontas County. I swear to God. Right fucking there we are on Verizon’s commercials.”

Martin knew well what connectivity was like outside the Quiet Zone. He had earned his degree from West Virginia University in 1979, married a woman from Marlinton, and began his career in Pocahontas County before becoming a well-heeled insurance attorney in Charleston. He’d gotten his first cellphone in 1986—it was the scale of a bottle, with a three-foot-long antenna, and it visited bed with him nightly. That attachment led to 2012 when he moved back to Pocahontas, where he only carried an iPhone so he could hear music in his truck. I asked if he was concerned about the impact of cell service on the electrosensitives.

“Wackos that are terrified of their brains getting fried and every one that?” he responded. “Yeah, i do know about them.”

“They see Green Bank as a haven,” I said.

“So? So?” He said he wasn’t visiting let the electrosensitives keep Pocahontas “behind the curve” for cell service.

“But I’m here because you’re behind the curve,” I said. “That makes this place unique.”

“You think we wish to pander to stone knives and axes for the remainder of our existence? You’re like these fucking those who move in here and don’t want it to alter, that it? we’ve those that have moved here within the last five to 10 years and that they don’t want anything to vary. They’ve ‘discovered’ Pocahontas County and now nothing can change. Well, fuck, that ain’t the way of the planet. we’ve limitations due to the observatory, thanks to our topography, due to our insignificant population. But we’d like to try and do what we will as government entities to form things available to people.”

“Of course,” Martin added, the cell service would must go with the Quiet Zone.

“We believe the observatory, we don’t want to fuck with them,” he said. “Right now, as you and that i are sitting here bullshitting, they’re up there searching for fucking E.T. and that i want to present them every opportunity to try to to that. But I’ve got emergency services I’ve have to be compelled to render during this county.”

In addition to trying to usher in cell service, Martin was assisting the county’s emergency services director, Michael O’Brien, to enhance communications. The 911 center in Marlinton had difficulty broadcasting any emergency radio communications toward the northern end of the county, where Green Bank was located. O’Brien found a partial solution by installing an internet-controlled radio system just north of Green Bank within the town of Durbin, but it had minimal range and failed altogether when internet or electricity went down. Pocahontas was also one in every of the sole counties within the state unable to adopt a “smart radio system” that integrated radios with smartphones.

On the off chance that somebody made an emergency 911 call from one in all the county’s few pockets of limited cell service, authorities had an especially hard time pinpointing the person’s location. “We had a dispatcher spend two and a half hours on the phone one night with a woman that was trapped in her car in an exceedingly creek,” O’Brien told me. “She didn’t know where she was or how she got there. We were just keeping her calm while we sent the department to appear altogether the areas that had cell service.”

ACCORDING TO DELOIT TE, a ten percent increase in mobile penetration increases total factor productivity—a key component of economic process modeling—by 4.2 percentage points over the future. In Pocahontas, businesspeople like Kenneth “Buster” Varner felt they needed all the assistance they might get to stay the county’s economy puttering along, which meant bringing in cell service.

I first met Varner in early 2017, while eating breakfast at the counter at Station 2. A heavy, jowly man, he had leaned over and asked, “Do you think that the gravy is just too salty?” As we shoveled down heaping plates of biscuits and sausage gravy, he told me about his various businesses. other than owning Station 2, he operated a six enterprises involved in logging, excavation, towing, septic pumping, and auto repair. He was also a hearth chief. I told him that I imagined plenty of headaches trying to manage all those things within the restrictions of the Quiet Zone.

“You should realize that we never had cellphone service when everybody else had it, so it wasn’t anything to us,” Varner said. “It’d be more convenient, of course, if it absolutely was so you may use your cellphones all the time. But it’s a singular place to measure where you don’t have them, and that we take a touch pride therein.” He noted how the observatory provided jobs and shared its resources, like lending one among its diesel generators to a dead room during a recent breakdown. “That to me means lots,” Varner said. “And having the most important telescope within the world out your back door, that’s a reasonably neat center.”

“People can get ahold of me the old-fashioned way,” he added. “Call me on the landline or come search for me.”

Spending longer with Varner, however, i noticed that he was few Luddite. once we met again months later in his cluttered office, I found it hard to stay his attention. He kept glancing down at his iPhone to test texts and alerts he was receiving over WiFi. When he took a call, i used to be left to stare at an advertisement of a busty woman during a red bikini and firefighter helmet. When he finally put down the iPhone, I told him i used to be confused. Hadn’t he said he took pride in not employing a cellphone?

“I thought it had been rude to own a smartphone,” Varner said of his “old” perspective, apparently from just some months earlier. “I do lots of business on it phone, over I ever thought in my wildest dreams that i’d do.” I asked if he could ever return to living without one. “Wouldn’t want to. It’s so handy.”

Varner had an AT&T data plan. He used Siri. He wished all his employees and volunteer firefighters could always be connected through smartphones. Instead, thanks to the Quiet Zone, he’d invested over $30,000 during a specially approved radio repeater system to permit his workers to speak via low-band radio. “I don’t want the observatory to shut and for people to lose their jobs,” he said, “but it’d be more convenient for everyone.”

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