In the woods of rural West Virginia, there’s a town that technology forgot. Green Bank is a small village nestled in a valley of the Appalachians where, in the 1950s, the U.S. government established the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
To ensure the accuracy of these giant telescopes, which are trained on the skies in search of alien life, the government banned any type of radio activity in Green Bank and the surrounding hills in 1958. That means no Wi-Fi, no cell towers, no device that emits electromagnetic energy–like microwaves or televisions. To ensure that the telescopes wouldn’t be disturbed, the government set up the National Radio Quiet Zone, transforming 13,000 square miles, including Green Bank, into a region dedicated to science that could utilize none of its technological fruits.
Dozens if not hundreds of photographers have visited Green Bank and photographed the telescopes. But a new photography book published by Fountain Books Berlin called The Drake Equation–a reference to the mathematical formula that estimates the odds of finding extraterrestrial life–aims to present the town from a slightly different perspective.
Vienna-based photographers Paul Kranzler and Andrew Phelps spent a total of two months in Green Bank, getting to know the characters of the place: the world-renowned astrophysicists, the bear hunters, the pastors, the “electromagnetic hypersensitives” who flock to the town because they claim they are allergic to radio frequencies. You can bring your smartphone, but it won’t find a signal–and use of a cellular phone is illegal and prosecutable.
The resulting volume is one where the town’s mystical characters and infrastructure are front and center, with the telescopes only popping up in the background. “We specifically never have a real straight clear photograph of the scopes,” Phelps says. “They’re always this mysterious thing in the fog, nighttime and glowing, obscured by trees.”
Even so, the “scopes” loom above Green Bank, intimidating in their stature yet oddly delicate. One of them, which began operating in 1968, was the largest telescope in the world at the time, at 300 feet across. “It’s strange, but there’s something about them that’s incredibly fragile,” Phelps says. “It’s almost like something some kid would build in science class.” Today the observatory uses two active arrays of telescopes, though, incredibly, the original telescopes are still standing even though they’ve long been decommissioned. One photograph shows the original 1950s receiving telescope built by Frank Drake, the scientist behind the Drake Equation. It stands behind the small wooden house where the scientists did their research at the time.
Another photo highlights one of the buildings where the scientists do their work: The entire building is a Faraday cage, with copper insulating the walls and even the windows to prevent the computers’ dangerous rays from disturbing the sensitive telescopes. Within three miles of the scopes, even microwaves have to be within Faraday cages. Even though they’re featured in relatively few images, the impact of these scopes is visible everywhere you look in Green Bank.
“It’s the scopes that dictate the way the place looks and the way it develops–or doesn’t develop,” Phelps says. “As amazing as the scopes are–they’ve created a lot of jobs and put the place on the map–they’ve also guaranteed that no big industry can move there.”
It’s the town’s residents that suffer the most from this lack of industry: Income per capita is just under $17,500, 41% lower than the national average. The poverty rate is 51%, compared to the national rate of 15%. “Everything you know about America, the good and the bad, is all right there,” he says. “There’s this amazing scientific technology, and progress on the forefront of science, and at the same time, extreme poverty. When they signed on to be radio free, they signed up for their own demise.”
Green Bank residents can access the internet through cables–which can be plugged into computers inside Faraday cages (this is how the scientists use their highly specialized scientific equipment). However, there are certainly no smartphones.
But the book doesn’t paint the town or its residents as backward. Instead, Kranzler and Phelps try to illuminate the undercurrents of this unusual place–where so many people, from the astrophysicists hunting for aliens to the electromagnetic hypersensitives, believe in something unbelievable. Phelps points to one spread in particular, which juxtaposes an image of a leading astrophysicist staring beyond the camera at a computer you can’t see, his face lit by the glare, with an image of crystals that a Green Bank hypersensitive claims can deflect negative energy from anyone sitting near her. The spread sums up the photographers’ ethos–to examine the town as a place of extreme belief.
“This astrophysicist tells me about radio waves traveling 13 billion light years,” Phelps says. “And then I have lunch with a hypersensitive, saying crystals deflect negative energy. Which one of them is crazy? Which one requires the most suspension of belief and reason?”