You get to the Green Bank Observatory by driving into the high mountains of West Virginia, on winding roads through narrow valleys and verdant forests, and when you're sure that you have reached the most remote place you've ever been in your life ... you keep going. Green Bank waits in the very back of the backwoods.
Which is the point. The observatory is situated in a 13,000-square-mile federally regulated area called the National Radio Quiet Zone. Science requires silence around these parts.
Astronomers scrutinize the universe in different wavelengths, including visible light, X-rays and infrared. The nonprofit observatory at Green Bank deals in the long wavelengths we call radio, which can penetrate galactic dust and reveal things - such as the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy - that can't be seen with optical astronomy. The telescopes needed to capture radio waves are huge. They're our big eyes on the cosmos.
Green Bank was founded in the 1950s and retains some vintage buildings and historic radio antennae. The site is vast, with eight telescopes towering over tree-lined meadows. Five are still operational, including the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. At 485 feet in height, it's taller than the Statue of Liberty and one of the largest movable objects on land anywhere on Earth, a tour guide explains.
Visitors must remain electromagnetically silent. You can't use a digital camera, because the autofocus feature creates radio frequency interference. The tour bus here runs on diesel, which doesn't require spark plugs. Even a tiny burst of radiation from a Fitbit can interfere with the astronomical business. The observatory uses a specially equipped, antennae-topped vehicle to patrol the nearby countryside nearby in search of rogue WiFi routers, cordless telephones or microwave ovens.
The tour passes the Howard E. Tatel telescope, which radio astronomer Frank Drake aimed in 1960 at two nearby sunlike stars. He hoped to detect transmissions from an alien civilization. And while he didn't find anything, his effort inaugurated the field of SETI - the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
This little vale is almost heaven for science nerds. In the observatory's science center, vivid exhibits explain the electromagnetic spectrum. Back outside, there's a sequence of flags and informational signs that present a scale model of the solar system. The sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are relatively close together in front of the main research building, but then it's a big jump to the Jupiter flag, a bigger jump still to Saturn, and so on, until you're really covering some ground, feeling the breadth of the solar system before you reach Pluto.
It's quiet in the Quiet Zone. But if you're wandering the property, you might hear a whirring sound from the 20-meter telescope. Visible a few paces off the main road, it helps scientists track the motion of continents due to plate tectonics.
The telescope is remote controlled, and a visitor watching it pivot may instinctively think of it as sentient. Maybe it just caught a glimpse of something intriguing. Maybe it senses an alien invasion in the offing. Let's all agree that it's good to have these big contraptions on our side.