John Harrison – Longitude Prize 1714 Winner. (Source: Wikipedia)
It’s not every day I write a post for a specific programme to watch for the Science TV and Radio guide, however as I collated the programmes at the weekend I became intrigued by Horizon on Thursday (22th May) evening which was about a reboot of the Longitude Prize.
The Longitude Prize has been interest of mine ever since I read the brilliant book Longitude by Dava Sobel about the prize and the man who won it, John Harrison. The controversy and the fighting over the right to claim the prize are a fascinating insight into the competitive drive that prizes like this can instil. But the huge advances in scientific knowledge and exploration simply because accurate timekeeping at sea was now possible are not to be taken lightly.
Just one example: Captain James Cook, who is another scientific hero of mine, (all but) confirmed Edmund Halley’s proof (based originally on James Gregory’s work 50 years earlier; on the shoulders etc…) for the measurement of the distance of the Earth to the Sun (1 Astronomical Unit) during a transit of Venus on the Island of Tahiti. This voyage would not have been possible to plan so effectively had it not been for John Harrison’s chronometer.
The idea of a prize to encourage the solutions to problems is not unique. In mathematics there is the famous Millenium Prize to solve the 7 most pressing problems in that field (with 6 still to do!). This in turn has inspired “EduGeek” Laura McInerney to set in motion the solving of key questions in education which she calls her TouchPaper Problems (I think the prize is much chocolate, coffee, tea and biscuits at the moment – gold dust to teachers), which has resulted in a project I am working on with Michael Slavinsky to attempt to map all the concepts we teach in school.
So I am naturally fascinated by the new Longitude Prize that has been launched today. As usual in this social-media led democracy we now live in we will get to vote on the problem we want solving. The choices are:
The first thing that strikes me about these questions is they are all yes/no/don’t know answers. That leads the door open for many forms of solution, which I like. However I wonder if the answer to some of these questions is simply just a matter of the political will to spend vast amounts of money in developing appropriate technology. But I guess that’s what drove the original Longitude Prize. It was politically driven, and in the end an Act of Parliament had to be passed simply to give John Harrison his deserved prize almost 50 years later.
Lets hope the political in fighting isn’t as bad this time around.
More Science TV and Radio for this week here