The scientists hunting extraterrestrial life at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia require absolute silence to do their work. Sitting before giant computers hooked up to an enormous radio telescope, they record signals originating in galaxies thousands upon thousands of light years away. The energy waves they’re listening to are so faint—some just a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a watt—that they can easily be drowned out by the human-made ones coming from Wi-Fi, cell phones, and even garage-door remote controls.
The National Radio Quiet Zone ensures they can do their jobs. This 13,000-square-mile swathe of shhh straddles West Virginia’s border with Virginia and Maryland. Here, much of the technology Americans use on a daily basis is either prohibited or regulated or simply doesn’t work, rendering the place something of a time warp.
“The telescopes dictate what life is like there,” says Andrew Phelps, “and that’s what makes it so interesting.”
Phelps and fellow photographer Paul Kranzler documented this strange zone and the people within it it for their fascinating new book The Drake Equation. The title comes from the mathematical formula that calculates the probability of alien life, but the pages in it depict and even more improbable mix of life on Earth. The Quiet Zone is a place where mystic scientists, gun-loving locals, and electromagnetic hyper-sensitives all live amongst one another, and Drake Equation chronicles their lives in rich detail.
The National Science Foundation established the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank in 1957. It chose the town because it sits in a valley bordered by mountains that shield it from spurious transmissions and was already quiet and sparsely populated, with no overhead power lines. That year, West Virginia made it illegal to operate interference-causing electrical equipment within two miles of the facility and capped the level of power devices could emit within 10 miles. The next year, the US government created the National Radio Quiet Zone to further limit electromagnetic interference, requiring special approval for the installation of transmitters within the zone.
The restrictions form a tech-free spiral that loosens the further you are from the observatory’s seven radio telescopes. Starting at the facility, workers use walkie talkies and fiberoptic cables instead of cell phones and Wi-Fi. They drive diesel-powered trucks and lawnmowers to avoid the interference caused by spark plugs. In the county, many people have landline phones, keep their microwaves inside aluminum cages and spurn the use of anything wireless. Far enough away, there are a few towers for cellphones, radio, and TV.
Kranzler and Phelps first read about the Quiet Zone several years ago. After Googling images, they realized most photographers who visited Green Bank had merely swooped in for an afternoon photo op. “We could tell no one had spent much time there,” Phelps says.
The Quiet Zone’s restrictions form a tech-free spiral that loosens the further you are from the observatory’s seven radio telescopes. Starting at the facility, workers use walkie talkies and fiberoptic cables instead of cell phones and Wi-Fi. They drive diesel-powered trucks and lawnmowers to avoid the interference caused by spark plugs.
So they did. In 2015, they spent six weeks in Green Bank, an unincorporated community of 143 people that amounts to little more than a strip with a post office, school, gas station, library, a few churches, and a handful of businesses. Since there was no hotel, they slept in the observatory’s dorms, bumping into grad students and astrophysicists at breakfast. Every day offered a new experience, from a ride in the observatory’s interference-sniffing truck, which uses a spinning antenna to track down repeat offenders, to a bear hunt with a man named Forest, who lives on the same land his ancestors took from Native Americans centuries before. At night, they threw back beers at the local bar, its lighting specially modified to suit electromagnetic-sensitive guests.
“On one side you’re sitting next to people like Forest, and on the other side of you is an architect from New York who has moved there because she’s violently ill through Wi-Fi, and at the table across from you might be an astrophysicist from Russia,” Phelps says. “There’s no other place to go at night so they all end up at the same place and don’t have much to say to each other. Not that there’s any animosity, but their worlds just don’t cross.”
It was everything a photographer could want in a project, even if it wasn’t the easiest to shoot. Since there are no cell towers near the observatory, their smartphones didn’t work. And because electronic equipment wasn’t allowed, they could only use analog medium format cameras near the facility, guessing on the exposures since light meters were also forbidden. When shooting the telescopes at night, they relied on cigarette lighters to illuminate the buttons on their cameras in lieu of flashlights or headlamps.
The result of all that stumbling around in the dark is The Drake Equation. The photographs paint a vibrant, almost cinematic image of life inside the zone, showing how it’s been thoroughly transformed by signals from far, far away.
The Drake Equation is out from Fountain Books Berlin. Images from the book will also be on view at Robert Morat Gallery in Berlin from May 26 until July 28.