£10m prize on offer for scientific discovery

Lift off: SpaceShipOne, a commercial manned spacecraft, won the Ansari XPrize in 2004 © PA

Prizes have often inspired people to achieve great technological feats in the past, among them the reward for the measurement of longitude in the 18th century. But do such prizes work today?

Exactly 300 years ago, a Yorkshireman named John Harrison solved one of the greatest scientific challenges of the 18th century.

At the time, Britain’s expanding world empire depended on great ships crossing oceans. Yet a ship’s exact location at sea was difficult to find. As a result, there were frequent shipwrecks and large losses of life and property.

Something had to be done. In 1714 the British government offered a reward of £20,000 (around £20m today) to anyone who could accurately determine longitude at sea.

This enormous prize was eventually won not by a naval expert, but by Harrison, a clockmaker and carpenter. His solution was to design the first reliable seafaring clock – a chronometer. Its mechanism kept the exact time, no matter how rough the seas and how hot the weather, which meant that longitude could easily be found by comparing local time with that on the chronometer set to Greenwich Mean Time.

This week, the Longitude Prize 2014 is being launched to solve one of the pressing problems of the world today. Worth £10m, it is open to anyone anywhere, both professionals and amateurs, with the aim of inspiring similar powers of invention to those of Harrison. The British public will vote to decide which global challenge should be tackled.

There are six categories to choose from: flight, food, antibiotics, paralysis, water and dementia; all areas where a scientific breakthrough could radically enhance people’s lives.

Since Harrison’s triumph, prizes have spurred many other technical advances. In the 1920s flying was the cutting-edge technology and in 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris winning a $25,000 reward. The huge publicity that resulted from his amazing achievement created a boom in the aviation industry.

More recently, the Ansari XPrize was used to encourage private industry rather than governments to take the lead in space travel. It offered $10m to the first team to build and fly a manned space vehicle 100km into space twice within two weeks. SpaceShipOne won the prize in 2004. XPrizes now encourage many other adventurous enterprises.

Scientists, geniuses, mavericks

But some argue that competitions like these are no longer necessary: today we have huge corporations, top universities and research foundations spending billions on research and development. The solitary scientific amateur has been replaced by the professional team.

Others disagree. Harrison proved that breakthroughs come from unlikely places. Inspired by fame and the prospect of hard cash, it is still possible for individuals, small teams, undiscovered geniuses and mavericks to step forward and change the future.

You Decide

  1. Will the Longitude Prize 2014 be useful in solving one of the most pressing problems of our age?
  2. Out of the six categories listed in the story, which area do you think deserves to be tackled the most?

Activities

  1. In groups, rank the six categories listed in the story in order of importance. For each one, brainstorm your own ideas of how you would improve problems in that area.
  2. Using expert links, choose one of the great inventors or innovators from history. Prepare a short presentation on him/her, explaining to the class the importance of their contribution.

Some People Say...

“There is no problem that can’t be solved.’Peter Diamandis”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t this story just for people who love science?
No, because the global issues being tackled affect us all. Sometimes it seems that there are enormous problems in the world that have no solution, like climate change or global inequality. But with advances in information technology, education and science, there is real hope that great thinkers, scientists and futurologists can solve some of them and make the world a better place for all of us.
But do contests like this really work?
Yes! Harrison is proof that incentivised competitions can speed up change and inspire excitement and creativity. Lindberg too enjoyed global fame and kickstarted an industry into achieving a vastly greater value. Within 18 months of him winning the contest, air passenger traffic had increased 30 times.

Word Watch

Shipwrecks
In 1707 more than 1,400 sailors drowned when four large British ships were wrecked on rocks off the Isles of Scilly because of navigators’ inability to calculate their positions accurately.
Longitude
A geographical coordinate which shows the east-west position on the Earth’s surface. Latitude shows the north-south position.
Chronometer
Creating a clock to keep time reliably was thought to be impossible. It was Harrison’s fourth attempt known as ‘H4’ that eventually succeeded. The H4’s clockwork mechanism ‘beat’ five times every second which meant it could not be unbalanced by a storm.
Vote
After a special 50th anniversary edition of the BBC science series ‘Horizon’ on Thursday, the public will be able to cast their votes online.
Ansari XPrize
It took 26 teams investing more than $100m over eight years before the prize was won by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, which completed its flights in the custom-built SpaceShipOne. Today the private space industry is worth more than $2 billion.

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