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Keep Listening

Published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, October 5, 2017

By E. Gordon Gee

For six decades now, Green Bank Observatory has been helping to fill in the vast blank spaces on our map of the universe through radio astronomy.

From detecting the first signal of an organic molecule in space to searching for low frequency gravitational waves from pulsars, Green Bank has been an integral part of radio astronomy and astrophysics research and discovery throughout its existence.

And for 60 years, West Virginians have celebrated this extraordinary facility. During the state’s centennial in 1963, the silhouette of the original 300-foot Green Bank radio telescope graced a special commemorative license plate. During the statehood quarter design competition in 2003, numerous entries featured the Green Bank Telescope.

Photos of the facility hang in classrooms and libraries across the state. An effort is underway to add Green Bank to UNESCO’s Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative.

The facility brings the world to West Virginia and we are proud to showcase our cutting-edge scientific equipment as well as our natural beauty. At the height of the Cold War in 1961, Russian scientists came to Green Bank for a symposium. High school students from every state visit Green Bank every summer as part of the National Youth Science Camp.

Researchers from institutions around the world rely on the radio telescopes at Green Bank for their work. Thousands of visitors each year enjoy the state-of-the-art Science Center.

And yes, Green Bank has been and remains a leading center for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The search began at Green Bank with Frank Drake and Project Ozma in 1960. We are proud of this fact, too, perhaps most of all because of what the search itself represents.

I think James Gunn, the author of the 1972 science fiction novel “The Listeners” about radio astronomy and the search for other life in the universe, said it well: “It may be that there is no one out there or if there is someone out there he will never speak to us or we to him, but our listening is an act of faith akin to living itself. If we should stop listening, we would begin dying and we would soon be gone, the world and its people, our technical civilization and even the farmers and peasants, because life is faith, life is commitment. Death is giving up.”

I have been honored to serve as president of West Virginia University, the state’s flagship, land-grant, research university, on two occasions almost 30 years apart. Based on that experience, I have found West Virginians to be determined, patient, resilient people.

Perhaps that is why Green Bank resonates so much with us. The monumental task of studying the universe in order to unlock its secrets requires determination, patience, and resilience. Even in the face of technical challenges, mixed signals, and financial setbacks, Green Bank perseveres.

Residents of West Virginia — a state born from the strife of the Civil War, beset by natural disasters, buffeted by economic downturns — can relate to that. That is why Green Bank is a great symbol for West Virginia.

As we celebrate this history, the future of Green Bank hangs in the balance. The National Science Foundation is in the midst of decreasing its funding for the facility. As someone immensely proud of Green Bank and its 60 years of scientific research, education, and outreach, I believe we must preserve and expand this essential place and continue its fundamental work.

Who knows what discoveries the next 60 years may hold? Let us keep listening. We must not give up.