One prize – but a lot of challenges

In 1714, the British government set up a prize for the inventor of a reliable ship’s chronometer to solve the problem of navigation. Now they are relaunching the Longitude Prize for the 21st century. This time, Jonathan Gornall writes, it’s the competition that seems to have lost its way
The ship’s chronometer from the HMS Beagle, part of the History of the World in 100 Objects exhibition at Manarat Al Saadiyat.  Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
The ship’s chronometer from the HMS Beagle, part of the History of the World in 100 Objects exhibition at Manarat Al Saadiyat. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

As anyone who has admired the historic ship’s chronometer on show at the Manarat Al Saadiyat exhibition A History of the World in 100 Objects knows, time has not always been on the side of human enterprise.

Until the early 18th century, our inability to tell the time accurately while at sea rendered accurate maritime navigation – and, hence, all international exploration, trade and warfare – a hit-and-miss affair, as likely to end on the rocks as in a safe landfall at a port of choice.

In 1714 an extraordinary competition launched by the British government changed all that, by offering £20,000 to the first person to devise a method for calculating longitude, or a ship’s position east or west of a known point on the globe.

Now, 300 years on, another British government has offered a similar prize, worth £10 million (Dh61.8m), although in the true X Factor style of our age it is leaving it to a popular TV vote to select the cause from a shortlist of six.

Back in 1714, with British warships and merchantmen regularly running aground for want of an idea as to where they were, it was clear where the nation’s priority lay.

For centuries, sailors had no difficulty working out their latitude. A simple wooden quadrant could be used to measure the angle between their position and that of the Sun or the northern pole star above the horizon, which translated directly into their distance north or south of the equator.

Nailing longitude, however, was an altogether tougher proposition, and failure to do so was costing lives and hampering the growth of trade and the influence of the nascent British Empire.

In theory, it should have been easy. Imagine the globe as an orange, divided into 360 segments, or degrees.

As it takes the orange 24 hours to rotate 360 degrees, and we know that its circumference at the equator is (more or less) 40,000 kilometres, we can calculate that each hour of rotation is equal to 15 degrees, or a distance of 1,666km.

To figure out a ship’s longitude, all we have to do is know the exact time at that point, and the precise local time on board our ship.

So if we know it’s 1pm in London and 5pm where we are, then we can calculate we are some 60 degrees east of London, somewhere along the line of longitude that passes within about 20km of the coast of Oman.

But in the early 18th century that was a big “if”, and it wasn’t until the longitude prize was won by John Harrison, a self-taught clockmaker who spent 40 years perfecting a timepiece that could be relied upon to keep near-perfect time on board a pitching ship for months on end, that the simple calculation became possible.

Ships’ captains could then confidently say exactly where in the world they were.

One of those captains was Robert FitzRoy, skipper of HMS Beagle, and one of the 100 objects on show at the British Museum’s exhibition is the Harrison-inspired ship’s chronometer FitzRoy relied on for navigation between 1831 and 1836.

That was when he took the naturalist Charles Darwin on the voyage of discovery that would unlock the secret of evolution.

Perhaps no further evidence is needed that Harrison’s clock was an epoch-changing invention. But now, 300 years on, the British government appears to be struggling to identify an equally great problem of our time worth solving.

Although the incentive of a £10m prize will doubtless drive thousands of enthusiastic amateur inventors into their sheds, unlike the original contest this is so far still a competition in search of a cause.

Coming up with a shortlist of six challenges has proved to be a mammoth exercise in itself, involving many “rounds of critical analysis and deliberation by hundreds of scientists and academics”.

Naturally, focus groups around the UK have also had their say and, after the prize is launched on BBC television at 10pm tonight, the public will have three days to vote for its challenge of choice.

On the surface, each of the six shortlisted challenges sounds worthy enough: finding enough food for the world; preventing our increasing resistance to antibiotics; helping people with dementia to live independently for longer; flying without damaging the environment; restoring movement to those with paralysis; and ensuring everyone has access to safe water.

Of course, some “major issues facing humanity” are conspicuous by their absence.

World peace, for instance, might have been nice, not to mention the development of a breakthrough method for marketing, as well as generating sustainable energy.

But these are complex issues that require more than a mere headline-grabbing “Eureka!” moment, and instead demand a reinvention of human nature and the geopolitics of commercial self-interest.

And on closer inspection the wishlist, and its association with Harrison’s solution to the longitude problem, is not without irony. After all, in a post-colonial world where interconnectivity appears to cause as many problems as it solves, one could argue that Harrison’s invention made possible not only global trade but also all the horrors that followed on from it.

They include the exploitation of faraway peoples and countries that has resulted in some of the vast inequalities of the modern world such as shortages of food and water, challenges number one and six.

Indeed, virtually all of the shortlisted challenges could be said to stem from our own successes, and excesses, as a species.

The growing problem of dementia, still very much an issue only for the privileged developed world, is actually a downside of our success at keeping people alive for longer.

And, in fact, antibiotics are alone responsible for adding 20 years to our lives.

Of course, actually preventing dementia might have been a more worthy objective than merely helping people to cope with it, but presumably that was deemed to be too much of an ask. There are, it seems, limits to our ingenuity after all.

Paralysis, and “the challenge to invent a solution that gives paralysed people close to the same freedom of movement that most of us enjoy”, is a curious choice for inclusion. Sure, paralysis is a lousy hand to be dealt, but is it really one of the “major issues facing humanity”?

This is a project that cleaves to the belief that we can invent ourselves out of anything, even messes created by our own ingenuity. Some people argue that it is a dangerous delusion.

Last year in his book 10 Billion, the scientist Stephen Emmott highlighted the dangers of taking a “we can fix it” attitude to the threat of a rapidly expanding global population.

Other scientists, however, believe that global populations will only continue to grow until about 2050, when as a result of development, they will level off and actually decline.

Challenge number four, though – “to design and build an airplane that is as close to zero carbon as possible” – is more likely to irritate the Emmott faction.

They would suggest that the simpler and more realistic challenge would be to simply restrict the number of flights we take.

According to one estimate, between now and 2023 the number of airline passengers is expected to grow each year by an average of 4 per cent.

Tony Tyler, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, told a conference in Doha last month that this year alone global passenger traffic would increase by 5.8 per cent, with Middle East airlines enjoying 13 per cent growth.

The killjoys would like to curtail our excessive use of air travel. After all, they would say, with face-to-face teleconferencing available to all on the most humble smartphone, the world has never been more connected: does anyone really need to fly around the world to give speeches or attend conferences?

They would also like to restrict the whole holiday travel business, ignoring the role international tourism has played in the development of considerable parts of the world, including the Gulf.

So for all those people who enjoy visiting new countries, meeting peoples of different cultures – or simply enjoying different weather for a couple of weeks – challenge number four will get their vote.

Published: May 20, 2014 04:00 AM


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