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How you can help decide the biggest scientific problem in the world today (and win £10m by solving it)

By James Vincent

A £10m bounty for amateur and professional scientists to solve one of the ‘six greatest challenges facing humanity’ has been announced today.

The Longitude Prize, funded by the charity Nesta and government-run Technology Strategy Board, hopes to replicate both the enterprising spirit (and scientific successes) of the 1714 Longitude Act that encouraged British scientists to solve a century-old navigational conundrum.

From 22 May until 25 June the public will be able to vote on six challenges chosen by the modern-day Longitude Committee and decide which is deserving of the prize money. Each of the problems has a global impact, and a solution to any - if a single solution exists - would be beneficial to the world.

Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and a member of the committee that chose the challenges, said he hopes that the prize will spark public curiosity and stimulate innovation, pointing to similar competitions set up by Darpa and Google that revitalized ‘stuck’ markets.

Geoff Mulgan, the chief executive of Nesta, said “If you want to solve a scientific problem, one method is to go to top universities and top scientists and ask them to solve it. But over the years, and this was something pioneered by the Longitude Prize in the 18th Century, it's often better to open it up to anyone to come up with a solution.”

The prize will be open to international entries although submissions will need to demonstrate that their solution would deliver "direct economic benefit" to the UK in the form of tax revenues or job creation."

The original Longitude Prize was created 300 years ago to solve one of the greatest problems facing Britain at the time: how to determine a ship’s longitude, or the distance it has travelled east or west from its starting destinatoin.

Sailors’ inability to determine their longitude not only led to meandering voyages but also to shipwrecks. In 1707 more than 1,400 sailors and four large British ships were lost off the Isles of Scilly because of navigators’ inability to calculate their positions accurately.

At the time it was quite easy to determine a vessel’s latitude (its position north to south) using the North Star or the Sun as a reference point, but working out longitude had been a problem for hundreds of years - so much so that it stumped great scientific minds from Galileo Galilei to Sir Isaac Newton.

It was known that for every 15 degrees a ship travelled eastward, the local time would move forward one hour. Therefore, sailors understood that if they had a reliable time source at the point at which they set sail, they could calculate how far they’d travelled by comparing this with their current time (worked out by calculating noon as the point at which they Sun was highest in the sky).

However, creating a clock that kept time reliably was thought to be impossible, with the motion of the ships, the humidity and the temperature changes at sea disrupting the mechanisms of mechanical timepiece and playing havoc with pendulums - the most accurate clocks of the day.

In 1714 the government created the Longitude Board and a £20,000 prize (roughly £2.6 million in today’s money) to anyone who could come up with a solution, eventually awarding the money (or most of it at any rate) to a Yorkshire clockmaker named John Harrison.

Harrison was known as a tinkerer and created a series of watches that would keep accurate time at sea. It was his fourth attempt (known as ‘H4’) that eventually proved to be reliable enough to survive the long journeys, with Harrison's breakthrough being to set the mechanics to run so quickly (the H4 ‘beat’ five times a second) that they could not be unbalanced even by a storm in the Pacific.

It’s difficult to understand just what a feat of engineering Harrison’s clocks were. His first design took six years to manufacture and the technology was so complex that these time pieces – able to be held in the hand – initially accounted for as much as 30 per cent of a ship’s total costs.

The 21st century’s Longitude Prize will be hoping to solve problems that seem just as intractable today as the longitude conundrum did in the 18th century, and hopefully, in another 300 years’ time, the solutions this new prize elicits will seem as obvious and quaint as Harrison's watches today.

Source: Independent

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