Radio Quiet American Summer

A post about that time I spent ten days surrounded by the mountains of West Virginia and protected by an invisible shield from the bombardment of distraction I'd not realized had crippled my cognitive power.

Summer camp in the US is as ubiquitous as apple pie. Or so I've heard. In fact, my pie of choice is pecan and summers in TX were usually spent fooling around at the Y between baloney sandwiches while my mom took ceramics classes, or riding bikes to the river and Stinson Field (small plane airport), or at my uncle's ranch where pigs were slaughtered near a hot fire for immediate, and in the case of the intestines, continuous cooking. Nevertheless, for those in the know, also known as, the people I interact with in my current life, summers were typically spent at camps of various incarnations (music, sports, etc.). A luxury afforded — I suspect — by the more mild and pleasant summertime climate found in the north and northeast as opposed to the sultry and stifling southern summers. As a result, to me summer camp has taken on the mystique of a sacred right of passage to which I have not been privy. Not privy, that is, until this summer.

Green Bank Observatory

This summer I participated in a brief camp-like experience all my own with a group of budding and established astronomers. The "camp" was actually the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) single-dish and interferometry radio astronomy summer schools. Typically the two schools occur at different times and locations, but occasionally they coincide and a few days of classes turns into about ten days of classes. This particular join summer school was held at the Green Bank Observatory in the mountains of West Virginia nestled in an elevated valley situated between a few ridges. There are some key aspects of this summer school which I will relay to you in list form, and which should help you understand what I mean when I say this was camp-like experience:

  • Isolation. Yes, we were isolated. As I mentioned, we were situated in the mountains of West Virginia. The nearest proper grocery store was an hour and a half drive, a drive that I never made. But to add even more isolation, we were in the National Radio Quiet Zone. Thirteen thousand square miles of land protected against unnecessary radio signals, radio interference, and radio noise. This means that cell phone towers where non-existent. This means that wifi routers were banned. This means that, in some parts, gasoline engines and their surprisingly noisy spark plugs were simply not allowed. This radio quiet zone was set up to protect the ability of the Green Bank radio telescopes to detect sensitive signals from the universe that are readily drowned out by the astronomical signals of our modern electronic conveniences. Even on site microwaves resided within metal boxes that contained their noise as a Faraday cage. Yeah, we were isolated.
  • Bunk beds. Yes, you read that right, we slept in bunk beds. 26 bunks per bunk room. One room for men, one room for women, each with their own shared bathroom. This was surprise. But nothing I had not experienced before as a younger person traveling through Europe and staying in hostels. The nighttime snoring cacophony was staggering, but also intriguing. I reminded me of nights in the Texas Hill Country when the katydids fill the sky with a raucous symphony.
  • Filled Days. Oh were were on a tight schedule. Breakfast at 7:30, Lunch at 12:30, Dinner at 5:30. Classes in between, observing at night! One of the luxuries of radio astronomy is supposed to be the fact that you can observe regardless of the time of the day. However, during our summer school the days were reserved for maintenance and the nights were left for our various observing projects. Sleep was a subway train with is doors closing completely just as you reached out to try to stop it.

Despite these seemingly harrowing details, the summer school was an excellent experience. I met some great scientists and learned a lot about the capabilities of radio telescopes at Green Bank and abroad (ALMA). As part of our introduction we also observed on a 40 foot radio dish which was entirely analog. The electronics were before us (no computer screen), the data were recorded on a chart by a stylus that moved in response to the changing voltage measured by the dish. Furthermore, the dish did not track sources, instead, we commanded the Earth to move the dish across our desired source. Yet as crude as it sounds, it was my favorite experience of the camp.

Data of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A as captured by the 40 foot radio telescope and the GBT05/06 group:
2015-07-08 14.32.13

An unexpected byproduct of this adventure had to be the encounter with my old pre-cellphone brain. That brain that could focus. That brain that held attention precious. That brain that read, wrote, and pondered in ways my present brain is sadly and continuously distracted from doing. This unexpected encounter must lead to change. I will attempt to end the constant vigil over my inbox and its peripheries like those multiple chat windows. I will attempt to not be electronically omnipresent and instead command myself to move across the Earth as I desire.