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While most of us are inundated by sounds of all kinds, folks in one Appalachian region are “zoning out” … enjoying a rare enclave of serenity. Richard Schlesinger of “48 Hours” has paid them a visit:
For anyone who’s ever been bothered by the loud ring of a cellphone, or a loud-mouth on a cell phone . . . there’s an island of tranquility, if you will, in the West Virginia mountains.
Here, most gadgets that transmit aren’t just unwelcome, they’re BANNED by the federal government.
People do live here – they’re just hard to reach.
Linda Taylor lives in Green Bank. It’s in the middle of a 13,000-square mile swath of the state that in 1958 was declared by the FCC the National Radio Quiet Zone.
No Bluetooth, no Blackberries. “Can’t use cell phones, you can’t use wireless,” said Taylor.
No problem if you’re from here. But Taylor has to adjust when she LEAVES the Quiet Zone.
“It is weird because, like, if I’m out at a restaurant or something and at the beach and my phone rings, I’m like, ‘What is that?’ And it’s my phone,” she told Schlesinger. “So it is weird in certain aspects.”
The Quiet Zone was set up to protect the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a very large and very sensitive radio telescope listening for the faintest of signals from space.
“You want to be in a place where there’s not interference, so it allows you to hear much fainter signals,” said Ethan Schreier, president of Associated Universities, Inc., who oversees over the telescope. He said the telescope helps us see the effects of general relativity by observing pulsars in orbit around other stars or other pulsars.
But it can’t do that if somebody’s on their cell phone. “That’s right,” said Schreier. “It would mess up the signals and make it much harder to study.”
So people here communicate the old-fashioned way, like a pay phone.
They’re very serious about controlling radio transmissions in The Zone. Chuck Niday showed us the observatory’s radio detection truck, loaded with gear that hunts down rogue signals. And there are a lot of them popping up on the screen as the truck goes by.
He laughingly says they are like “radio cops,” but with no power. The observatory can’t order anyone to turn off their wireless Internet or their cell phone, but they can ask, nicely.
“If there’s a problem, and we ask them to shut it down or fix it and they tell us no, then we just have to go to the FCC and say, ‘We got a problem,’ and let them take care of it,” said Niday.
So far, they’ve managed to limit the radio waves here. And that’s good, for the astronomers AND for a small group of people like Diane Schou. She moved here from Iowa when she became convinced radio waves were making her sick.
“When a cell tower was built near our home in Iowa and activated, nine months later I had hair loss, I had a rash,” she told Schlesinger. “I thought it was something I had eaten. My vision changed. I couldn’t look at bright lights, and it hurt to read. It was very difficult to read.”
She said it was all from radio waves, and that while West Virginia isn’t perfect, “It’s the best place that I know of where to be.”
It’s a place where radio-phobes and physicists have a common interest. For them, radio-free life is a good life, and it’s only possible in the Quiet Zone.
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