The Longitude Prize

27 May 2014

Interview with

Astronomer Royal, Professor Martin Rees, Cambridge University

This week saw the relaunch of the longitude prize which was originally set by the British John Harrisongovernment 300 years ago to encourage inventors to find a way for ships to pinpoint their positions on long ocean voyages.

It was relatively simple to work out a ship's latitude by looking at the position of the sun in the sky. But longitude, which is how far around the Earth's surface the ship was, was much harder to figure out. This prize led to a new method being developed to make determining longitude much more accurate

This new prize offers £10 million to individuals who can solve 6 pressing modern day problems.

Kate Lamble went to see the chair of the committee, astronomer royal Professor Martin Rees who started by explaining the original longitude prize...

Martin -   Well in 1714, the government passed a Longitude Act and this allowed them to offer a reward of up to 20,000 pounds, which is like several million in today's money, for someone who found a way to determine longitude accurately, and specifically this had to be within 30 miles accuracy after transatlantic voyage.

Kate -   And who solved the problem in the end?

Martin -   Well, the interesting thing was that the solution came from John Harrison who was a real outsider.  He was a Yorkshireman, started as a carpenter and joiner, and he over 40 years developed  more and more precise chronometers.  He won with an amazingly precise instrument, a pocket size clock which was robust enough to survive transatlantic voyages.  At that time the prize was setup, it wasn't clear that clocks where the route at all.  They established what many astronomers thought that it would be solved by a precise measurement to the moon and the stars.  So, he was an outsider and it was a good example of how, by having a challenge prize, you draw in outsiders and allow a variety of approaches to play against each other.

Kate -   I love the fact that the first reason of him being an outsider that you mentioned was being a Yorkshireman, never mind the joiner or carpenter.  The Yorkshireman comes first.  So, if it's a good way of bringing in outsiders why do we want to renew the Longitude Prize today?

Martin -   Well of course, the scene is very different today.  There's not just one big challenge but many and of course, there's a huge amount of incentives being offered by commercial bodies and other government bodies. 

In fact, the 10 million pounds may seem a lot, but it's a thousandth of what the UK spends annually on our R&D.  So, it's not going to change the world, but it is going to make a distinctive contribution because a well-configured prize has a number of benefits.  First, it would allow lots of people to participate including some outsiders.  Secondly, it can attract public interest in the progress towards the goal.  One has to configure the prize so that it's challenging but not impossible.  Also, the judging is objective, so it's important that the judging should be objective like in athletics, unlike the Oscars or the Turner Prize for instance.

Kate -   So, if longitude was the big problem back in the day, what are the problems that we need to tackle with prizes today?

Martin -   There are very many of them and I've been chair in the committee which has been picking out six areas which we think are socially important and where we think a prize with an incentive of 10 million pounds could make a difference. 

These areas are:

  • First antibiotic resistance, ways in which for instance someone in Africa can decide cheaply and accurately whether they've got a viral disease or bacterial disease. 
  • Looking after patients with dementia.
  • Looking after people who have handicaps in mobility using advanced robotics and other techniques.
  • Food for the world, new techniques to enable us more readily to feed 9 billion people.
  • Clean water for the world.  Many people are in places where they need to purify water or desalinate water.
  • In the transport area, perhaps a way of moving towards zero carbon flight. 

So, those are the six areas and what's going to happen is they have been announced in a TV programme last Thursday - Horizon programme and that opened the voting.  Anyone can vote and the results of the vote will be announced on the One Show on the 25th of June. 

And then what will happen is that our group will focus on the favoured challenge by the public and try and configure a prize.  It's got to be a prize which is of the right level of difficulty, etc.  So, that will be a job for us over the summer.  And then the timescale for the prize would be not the 50 years that it took to solve the Longitude Prize, but something like 5 years and we would hope for there to be intermediate steps along the way so that the public can follow progress.

Kate -   The original prize was solved by an outsider.  Are outsiders really going to be able to help with antibiotic resistance and robotics, and more complex things we're dealing with nowadays?

Martin -   Well with the example of antibiotic resistance - clearly, drug development is not the kind of thing that one is going to incentivise by this prize.  But clever, simple bits of equipment which may be in conjunction with mobile phone, allow people to diagnose what sorts of disease they've got.  And as regards to outsiders, anything involving software for instance can be done by very many people.  It doesn't involve big bits of equipment.  So, it's very important that challenge should be something that isn't going to be limited to the big battalions.

Ginny -   I better start thinking about my 10 million-pound idea then.  That was the Astronomer Royal Martin Rees and you can help decide which of the 6 topics gets chosen by visiting

Hannah, what do you think you'd vote for all of those?

Hannah -   I probably should vote for either the paralysis or the dementia because my background is in neuroscience.  However, controversially, I think my vote would be cast in more looking at sustainable food for the world and also, clean water supplies.

Ginny -   I think if you want to make a difference to the biggest number of people, then water has to be the most important thing because it's just so vital.  But then if I'm thinking more personally, the things that scare me about my future, it is dementia and its antibiotic resistance.  So, it's a bit of a conundrum for me.

Hannah -   One of the questions is whether 10 million pounds of Grant payer's money, whether this is a good idea to ask the taxpayers to help vote and to get involved in research in this way.  As Martin said, this is only 0.1% of the total amount of money that goes to R&D set aside by the government.  So, in some ways maybe it would be nice if we did these types of challenges or public awards more often?

Ginny -   I think anything that gets people more involved in the process of science has got to be good.

Hannah -   Thanks, Ginny. 

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