Gwynne Dyer: A new Longitude Prize

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      Voting begins this week to choose the problem that the winner of the Longitude Prize 2014 will have to solve—and win £10 million.

      It’s a publicity gimmick, of course, but it may be very useful nevertheless. Especially because, unlike most of these prizes for innovation, it is meant to solve a problem that is of concern to all of humanity.

      The DARPA Challenges are all about autonomous vehicles and robots, mostly with military applications.

      The Ansari X Prize was for a low-cost reusable spacecraft capable of sub-orbital flight, and the follow-on Google Lunar X Prize is more of the same. Toys for the boys.

      The $10 million Tricorder X Prize, announced in 2012, is a bit closer to the mark, as it would reward the development of an instant diagnostic device like the one used by Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the Chief Medical Officer in the original Star Trek series.

      But the Longitude 2014 Prize is the real deal.

      It marks the 300th anniversary of the first Longitude Prize, when the British parliament  offered £20,000 (a sum comparable to £10 million now) to anyone who could devise a method for finding a ship’s position at sea. Latitude—its distance north or south of the equator—could easily be found by measuring the height of the sun or the Pole Star above the horizon, but there was no good way of determining its east-west position: its longitude.

      Instead, mariners relied on “dead reckoning”. They kept track of what courses they steered, how fast they were going, and for how long, and added it all together to come up with a rough estimate of how far they had travelled east or west. But they could not accurately calculate the effect of ocean currents and winds on their position, and the ships often tacked to and fro.

      After an ocean crossing, navigators were often wrong about their ship’s position by hundreds of kilometres: landfall might occur with no warning, and quite possibly at night.

      Worldwide, hundreds of ships were being lost each year, and so in 1714 the Longitude Prize was created.

      The solution was obvious in principle. You just set your clock at noon at your port of departure, note the time it reads when the sun is highest wherever you are, and the difference between noon on the clock and noon at your present position will tell you your longitude. But your clock must stay accurate during long sea voyages.

      They had good pendulum clocks in the 18th century, but pendulums didn’t work very well on a rolling, pitching ship.

      It took a long time to build a chronometer that stayed accurate enough (gaining or losing only a few seconds per month) to let mariners calculate their longitude to within one or two nautical miles, but by 1765 John Harrison, a clockmaker from Lincolnshire, had done the job.

      He died a rich man, and he deserved his reward: thousands of ships were saved from shipwreck and hundreds of thousands of lives were spared in the century that followed.

      The new Longitude Prize is all about saving human life (or improving it) on a very large scale.

      There are six “challenges” on the Longitude Committee’s list, and only one of them will be chosen for the prize. They are:

      • Flight: How can we fly without damaging the environment?
      • Food: How can we ensure everyone has nutritious sustainable food?
      • Antibiotics: How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
      • Paralysis: How can we restore movement to those with paralysis?
      • Water: How can we ensure everyone has access to safe and clean water?
      • Dementia: How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?

      When you read the actual “job descriptions” of these challenges, it’s clear that some thought went into it.

      Consider the antibiotics challenge, for example: “Clinicians often prescribe broad spectrum antibiotics to sick patients because doctors have to act quickly on imperfect information. These methods put selective pressure on microbes to evolve resistance to antibiotics....

      “The challenge...will be to create a cheap, accurate, rapid, and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow doctors and nurses all over the world to better target their treatments, administering the right antibiotics at the right time. Point-of-care test kits will allow more targeted use of antibiotics, and an overall reduction in mis-diagnosis and prescription. This will ensure that the antibiotics we have now will be effective for longer.”

      So you could win this challenge with a working Tricorder—two prizes for the price of one?—and the breakthrough idea need not even come from the medical field.

      As BBC Director-General Tony Hall said when the prize was announced: “There might be another modern-day John Harrison somewhere out there...and they may not even know that they're a scientist.”

      It’s a kind of crowd-sourcing, and none the worse for that. The voting to decide which challenge gets the nod opened on May 22 on the BBC Horizon website, and closes on June 25.

      Unfortunately, voting is restricted to British residents, but the prize is open to everybody in the world.

      And maybe there are five other governments out there that would like to put up $10 or $20 million for a solution to one of the other five challenges.

      Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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      Ilan Hersht

      May 22, 2014 at 9:54am


      Zero carbon flying is getting into the highly political climate/carbon/high altitude vapor debate which (in my opinion) is something we don't understand well enough yet to determine objectively what the solution should be. It also has a lot of attention & money on it right now, so this choice wouldn't be as impactfull.

      I'm not a fan of the food one either. We already produce many times more grain per person than at any point in history. At $200-300 per ton (yearly calories for a family of 4-5), nutrition is not a technological problem. Cheap calories exist. It's rarely even really even an economic one. Wide scale nutritional deficits today are mostly a by product of war or instability. It's not something that can easily be addressed in a lab.

      The antibiotics/diagnostics challenge seems well laid out and sounds encouragingly achievable. I like it.

      Water/desalination too. I have no idea how achievable it is, but it's very well defined or judicable.

      The dementia challenge is about "affordable technologies that revolutionise care." That's important. I have no idea for what they would be.

      I love the paralysis challenge: "invent a solution that gives people with paralysis close to the same freedom of movement that most of us enjoy." Ambitious & clearly defined.

      Whoever wrote these did a great job.


      May 23, 2014 at 4:31am

      I can solve all the problems but the last one.

      For the first one - jump off a cliff.

      For the next 4 - kill everyone in the whole world (from Blackadder's 'the Wise Woman').

      First five problems solved.

      I Chandler

      May 23, 2014 at 8:24am

      "Antibiotics: How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?"

      Some 80% of antibiotics go into animal feed to promote growth. The use is banned in some countries due to food contamination or concern about increasing antibiotic resistance
      Agent Orange GMO crops should solve everything:

      " by 1765 John Harrison, a clockmaker from Lincolnshire, had done the job. He died a rich man, and he deserved his reward: thousands of ships "

      John Harrison died a rich man because he had little time to spend it - just 3 years. Harrison was 68 years old, in 1761 when he sent his chronometer on a transatlantic trial - 80 when he saw the prize. The Board of Longitude, who administered the longitude prizes never gave him the prize. He was forced to fight for his reward for over a decade:

      'Harrison enlisted the aid of King George III. He obtained an audience with the King, who was extremely annoyed with the Board. King George tested the watch No.2 (H5)...Harrison received a monetary award in 1773, when he was 80 years old, but he never received the official award (which was never awarded to anyone). He was to survive for just three more years.'

      "he deserved his reward: thousands of ships were saved from shipwreck and hundreds of thousands of lives were spared in the century that followed."

      Chronometers didn't become standard for general nautical use by the end of the 18th century:


      May 24, 2014 at 6:42am

      All 6 questions boil down to the same question that humanity has asked for centuries: "How can we beat Nature?"

      We can't beat Nature; it always wins in the end. But we never learn.

      We're smart enough to invent the saying "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" but we're apparently too stupid to apply it to Nature.


      May 24, 2014 at 6:56pm

      Mosby, we beat nature all the time. Note the lack of smallpox around you, human atmospheric & space flight, and our ability to destroy whole ecosystems without even trying. Of course, we don't so so without consequences, and solving the problems in the Longitude challenge will inevitable create more problems (wouldn't want future generations to get bored, would we?). But still, don't be so pessimistic.