Longitude Prize searches for breakthrough idea

Voting begins this week to choose the problem that the winner of the Longitude Prize 2014 will have to solve — and win £10 million ($17 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.

Voting begins this week to choose the problem that the winner of the Longitude Prize 2014 will have to solve — and win £10 million ($17 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 hundred 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:

l Flight — How can we fly without damaging the environment?

l Food — How can we ensure everyone has nutritious sustainable food?

l Antibiotics — How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?

l Paralysis — How can we restore movement to those with paralysis?

l Water — How can we ensure everyone has access to safe and clean water?

l 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 Thursday 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 million 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.

Just Posted

House sales drop in northwestern B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS Jonathan Hayward)
Central Alberta real estate continues its hot streak

793 residential units sold in central Alberta through April compared with 210 in 2020

A representative for the office of Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Kaycee Madu says the new Red Deer drug treatment court is expected to be operational by the middle of 2022. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer drug treatment court expected to be up and running no later than mid-2022

The Government of Alberta expects the new Red Deer drug treatment court… Continue reading

Environment Canada says rain Tuesday evening will turn to snow. (File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Expect wet snow Tuesday night central Alberta

Heavy wet snow could accumlate with the potential for broken tree branches

FILE - In this Thursday, April 29, 2021 file photo, giant bucket-wheel excavators extract coal at the controversial Garzweiler surface coal mine near Jackerath, west Germany. A report by the International Energy Agency on Tuesday, May 18, 2021 says immediate action is needed to reshape the world’s energy sector in order to meet ambitious climate goals by 2050. This includes ending investments in new coal mines, oil and gas wells. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
Energy agency: End new fossil fuel supply investments

IEA report sets out 400 steps to transform how energy is produced, transported and used

A man inspects the rubble of destroyed commercial building and Gaza health care clinic following an Israeli airstrike on the upper floors of a commercial building near the Health Ministry in Gaza City, on Monday, May 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Strike from Gaza kills 2 as Israel topples 6-story building

Latest attack from Gaza on Tuesday hits packaging plant

Red Deer musician Curtis Phagoo is glad the Alberta government is investing $2 million to help the province’s live music industry, but he would have liked the criteria to be expanded, so the money could be used as relief to cover revenue shortfalls. (Contributed photo by Cory Michaud)
Red Deer musicians welcome $2M in grants to help live music, but would have preferred relief program

The money is for future projects and can’t be used for retroactive expenses

Sheffield United’s Daniel Jebbison celebrates after scoring his side’s opening goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Everton and Sheffield United at Goodison Park in Liverpool, England, Sunday, May 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Alex Pantling/Pool via AP
Canadian teenager Daniel Jebbison turns heads with Premier League goal

Jebbison, 17, is the youngest player in Premier League history to score on his first start in England’s top tier

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Nathalie Emmanuel, left, and Vin Diesel in a scene from “F9.” (Giles Keyte/Universal Pictures via AP)
The blockbuster movie makes a comeback this summer

Last year, summer earnings were $176 million, down 96% from 2019

FILE - In this Feb. 3, 2021, file photo, exile Tibetans use the Olympic Rings as a prop as they hold a street protest against the holding of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, in Dharmsala, India. Groups alleging human-rights abuses in China are calling for a full boycott of the Beijing Olympics, which is sure to ratchet up pressure on the International Olympic Committee, athletes, sponsors, and sports federations. A coalition of activists representing Uyghurs, Tibetans, residents of Hong Kong and others, issued a statement Monday, May 17, 2021 calling for the “full boycott,” eschewing lesser measures like “diplomatic boycotts" and negotiations with the IOC or China. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia, File)
AP Exclusive: Full-blown boycott pushed for Beijing Olympics

AP Exclusive: Full-blown boycott pushed for Beijing Olympics

Canada's Eric Lamaze riding Fine Lady 5 during the CP International competition at the Spruce Meadows Masters in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Canada's most decorated show jumper has withdrawn from consideration for the Tokyo Olympics. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canadian show jumper Eric Lamaze withdraws from Tokyo short list

Canadian show jumper Eric Lamaze withdraws from Tokyo short list

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse questions a foul call during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers Monday, April 26, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. Nurse says it was the COVID-19 outbreak in March that spiked his team's chances for a post-season run.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Chris O'Meara
Nurse faces a busy off-season, much busier if Canada qualifies for Tokyo Olympics

Nurse faces a busy off-season, much busier if Canada qualifies for Tokyo Olympics

Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Danielle Goyette speaks to reporters during a press conference in Toronto on Friday, November 10, 2017. Goyette has been named director of player development for the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and their American Hockey League affiliate. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov
Hayley Wickenheiser, Danielle Goyette together again on Toronto Maple Leafs staff

Hayley Wickenheiser, Danielle Goyette together again on Toronto Maple Leafs staff

Most Read