IFLScience Meets: Journalist Stephen Kurczy On Life In The Green Bank Observatory's "Quiet Zone"

Stephen Kurczy traveled to West Virginia's 'Quiet Zone' to find out what life is like in a town supposedly suspended in radio silence since 1958. Image credit: Stephen Kurczy

In 1956, science graced the doorstep of the town of Green Bank, West Virginia, in the form of the Green Bank Observatory, the oldest federal radio astronomy facility in the United States. Its arrival was something of an imposition, however, as some locals – who weren’t asked for approval for its erection – were forced out of their farmland to make way.

Since then, Green Bank has been dubbed the Quiet Zone, owing to a 33,670 square-kilometer (13,000-square-mile) National Radio Quiet Zone that was established in 1958. While the quiet regulations weren’t too oppressive in the early days, they’ve become a source of unrest in the 21st century as the local community yearns to join the world of wireless.

Journalist Stephen Kurczy, who doesn't own a cellphone, decided to immerse himself in the Quiet Zone to see if it was really the off-the-grid haven he had been led to believe, resulting in his new book, The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence. Here, he tells us what it’s really like in a town thought to be stuck in the technological past and how local tensions are simmering in the modern day.

What inspired you to investigate the Quiet Zone?

I haven’t owned a cellphone since 2009, in part because I think it’s a devilish device that hijacks our attention, erodes in-person conversation, and undermines our ability to live in the moment. I’ve come to feel like a kind of hermit in plain sight because of my stubborn refusal to carry a device that 97 percent of Americans have in hand. In 2017, I read that one town in America actually banned smartphones, cell service, and Wi-Fi because of the presence of a major radio astronomy observatory. It sounded like a kind of utopia. I was there within weeks.

What are some of the most interesting/unexpected things you learned about this town during your time there?

The Quiet Zone isn’t so quiet. While innumerable articles have touted the West Virginia town of Green Bank as an offline oasis, smartphones are not banned and there’s a lot of Wi-Fi, despite rules against it. Five years before I arrived, the observatory was already counting about 70 Wi-Fi hotspots within 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) of its telescopes. Today there are nearly 200 hotspots. And keep in mind this is a rural community of only about 250 people. I’ve actually found it difficult to locate anybody without Wi-Fi.

Just the other week, I was speaking with one of the last families without Wi-Fi in Green Bank. Their modem had broken, and their Internet provider said it could only replace it with a new one that automatically creates a hotspot. The choice was to get Wi-Fi or not have Internet. The family installed the new modem, even though they only really wanted wired Internet, which underscores how it’s become nearly impossible to not have Wi-Fi today, even in the Quiet Zone.

How did the observatory come to land in Green Bank?

Founded in 1956, the Green Bank Observatory is the oldest federal radio astronomy facility in the US and the longtime home to some of the world’s premier telescopes for studying the cosmos. The National Science Foundation chose Green Bank as the site’s location because it was one of the most naturally quiet areas in the eastern US, in a remote, isolated valley surrounded by mountains and without many people or much industry. The quiet was codified through a state law and the surrounding 13,000-square-mile National Radio Quiet Zone, created in 1958.

Green Bank itself didn’t have much of a choice in the matter of becoming a Quiet Zone, and some locals would rather have not seen the observatory move into the community. Back in the 1950s, the federal government actually took several families to court to force them to give up their farmland for the 2,700-acre observatory property. To this day, some people are still bitter about the takeover.

The quiet regulations weren’t a big deal in the early days. If electronic equipment was harmful to the telescopes — like an arcing electric fence or staticky radio — the observatory was happy to fix it for free. Only in the 21st century have the quiet laws become a tension point between an observatory that requires uncluttered airwaves and a community that would like to join the wireless revolution, which means having anything from Wi-Fi to Fitbit watches to wireless key fobs.

What drew you to journalism as a career?

I’ve always been curious about how the world works, and that meant asking questions. I also find that I better understand something when I write it down and am forced to clearly and succinctly explain an idea. I also love good stories. That all adds up to being a journalist.

The moment I really said “I want to work in journalism” was my freshman year of college, when I read The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. In a funny way, that book romanticized the dreary, thankless, hardscrabble life of a news reporter who is working in an isolated, remote, insular community — not unlike my life while working on my book.

What did it take to reach get here?

My journalism career is defined by these words: curiosity, persistence, a love of adventure, rashness, frugality, and a willingness to be untethered. A sense for adventure and propensity to jump into the deep end sent me on reporting escapades around the world, from Cambodia to Brazil. This nomadic career requires a willingness to live frugally and with uncertainty about where the next paycheck might come from. 

Along the way I’ve found several great mentors, most recently Professor Samuel G. Freedman of Columbia University, where I participated in the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Business and Economics Journalism in 2016-2017. During that life-changing year, I took Professor Freedman’s book writing seminar, which gave birth to this writing project.

The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence by Stephen Kurczy, published by Dey Street Books, is out now at UK and US bookstores.

 
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