September 3, 2014
West Virginia Town Bans Cell Phones In The Name Of Science

A West Virginia town banned cell phones, microwaves, commercial radios, wireless internet and other devices in the name of science. While Green Bank might sound like a town bent on staying in the past, the real reason for the ban is different.

Green Bank, West Virginia is home to the world's largest radio telescope. MSN News reports the telescope is a 100-meters-in-diameter dish and the crown jewel of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

The telescope measures radio waves emitted from objects in space, allowing it to go where optical telescopes can't. The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope allows astronomers to "see" portions of the universe that are invisible to the human eye. The technology allows the power to study far-off galaxies and the lives of stars. It also allows the discovery of new planets.

However, being home to the world's largest radio telescope also comes with sacrifice. In order to operate properly, the telescope needs complete radio silence within a 10-mile radius.

The West Virginia town's cell phone ban must be policed constantly using vigilance, cooperation, and creativity. When a crew sees a spike in radio waves, they hop in a diesel truck equipped with antennas to track down those responsible for the spike.

The radio telescope's extraordinary sensitivity is both a boon and a hindrance. While it allows scientists to see farther out into space, it also means even one cell phone can throw it off.

The Weather Network suggests the West Virginia town's cell phone ban may not be a bad thing. Several studies suggest that putting down cell phones, and other technology could benefit people with a more active lifestyle and less damage to their vision.

A 2012 study by the University of Maryland showed that cell phone users are less likely to participate in activities that could help others or society as a whole.

While the ban is certainly necessary for the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the massive device is also protected by a ring of mountains. However, topography in the area isn't enough to maintain the radio wave blackout the telescope needs to function properly.

In the telescope's early days, patrolling the radio blackout was easy. Malfunctioning electronics were often the largest disturbance, and NRAO general manager Mike Holstine would go to the door of the home responsible and help fix the issue. However, Holstine explained that the interference has become a daily occurrence in the face of new technology.

Holstine explained, "Most people don't think about these kinds of things, but we have to think about them all the time. Basically, anything you have that is electronic is a source of radio-frequency radiation."

While Holstine and his crew help monitor the West Virginia town's cell ban, the Federal Communications Commission is the ultimate enforcer.

[Image: NRAO/AUI]