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The Radio Quiet Zone

April 3, 2013

I don’t know if it is more embarrassing or delightful to me that, for all the years I have lived in Charlottesville, it wasn’t until today that I learned about the National Radio Quiet Zone, the eastern border of which cuts right through town and which is administered from here by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory headquarters. I have walked past the NRAO building (it is one of those intriguing technical facilities around Observatory Hill) but never knew anything about it.

The Radio Quiet Zone is a 13,000 square mile area in which special restrictions are in place to protect two sites in West Virginia, a radio astronomy observatory and a government listening post operated by the Navy and NSA, from electromagnetic interference. Any large transmitters in the zone have to be cleared by the NRAO, and in the immediate vicinity of the sites (such as at the Snowshoe ski resort) very tight controls are in place.

It was this piece from the New Yorker which clued me in about the Zone. It concerns people who believe that they are made ill by certain electromagnetic fields and radio waves, and mentions how a few of them have moved to the National Radio Quiet Zone to seek relief. Though I feel bad for those suffering from what can only be considered a sad delusion (even if the condition is real the problem would be emitters in proximity, and the gains from living in the Zone negligible), I cannot help being a bit pleased with this as well. As far as zones go the NRQZ does not compare to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone or the Korean DMZ, much less the fictional Zone of Roadside Picnic (the book) and Stalker (the movie). It  is not quite as impressive. But these people, by actually picking up and moving to be in the Zone and thinking of its character as essential to their well-being, are adding weight to its significance and making it that much more strange and magical. They give imaginative power to a technical and administrative reality.

In my Googling I came across this blog post about the Zone, which not only cites my man Bruno Latour but also quotes Graham Harman (see my previous post) on Latour. It’s all coming together now. I don’t know what it is, but it’s coming together.

For Charlottesvillians curious about where the boundary lies, The White Spot marks the spot. It is inside the Zone, but everything east of it is outside. More precisely, the Pepsi machine next to The White Spot appears to mark the line, according to Google Earth. Though in years past, without ever realizing it, I was a resident of the Zone, my current home is about a mile to the east of it. If I were still on the inside I might change the line on the masthead from “an organ of The Virginia Institute For More Advanced Study” to “Reports From the Radio Quiet Zone.”

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One Comment
  1. Cool bit of writing and history, thanks. I just learned that magnetic fields can be effected by heat, as in a speaker.

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