The Longitude Prize

The scientific establishment remains today stuck in a loop.  One of the most vaunted and a flagship science ‘project’ of today’s establishment; one funded and encouraged by public funding and by government backing is this The Longitude Prize.

The Longitude Prize competition is founded on presumptuous and elitist attitudes; and these attitudes reflect the narrow sad complacency of many who call themselves scientists.

There are many grounds on which to substantiate these claims of mine; of elitism and complacency and even of ignorance.  Some of the most forceful grounds are as follows:

  • The Longitude Prize exists in the format of a Competition.

Ideologically for the creators and backers of The Longitude Prize to have opted for a competition format for it is a fact open to discussion and worth unpacking.  Science competitions had their heyday back in High Victorian times; times which feature well with persons of who believe themselves of account and place in our present age.

The original Longitude Prize was a competition during the 18th century in Britain which was won by a chronometer maker who was able to construct an instrument accurate enough to be used in assessing longitude at sea on voyages. Thus the problem of assessing longitude accurately for sea voyage navigation was more or less solved.

Both 18th and 19th century science was carried on more or less wholly by ‘gentlemen’; that is, by a class of person, male, educated, well-off, and secure in some position in middle and upper class society; the spiritual grandfathers of the guys (and girls) backing and hosting the present Longitude Prize.

The science of the 18th and 19th century was in its day for the most part groundbreaking stuff.  The agrarian revolution had enabled the industrial revolution and both of these revolutions were fostered by and in turn fostered the endeavours and intensity of science and scientific discovery in that age. Those guys did not ‘look back’ like Lot’s wife; and so their scientific endeavours did not lead to a sudden stasis, and so did not stagnate.

The name of The Longitude Prize is given I assume to this current scientific endeavour in homage to the guy who invented the cool chronometer, and to the guys who put up the money and set up the 18th century competition which spurred his invention.  So it looks backwards; unlike the guys to whom this looking backwards is aimed to do homage.

These ages of 18th and 19th century are now history; and as history they are in time ‘fixed’ and so in the general perception ‘established’. Their trends and themes and predilections and causes and energies have been mulled over and descanted on time and again by historians and a general consensus on the main features of those times has been pretty well reached.  Unlike the precariousness of the present and the future they are now ‘safe’ because irrecoverable and so unchangeable.

The stereotypical choice of invoking their spiritual ancestors by their having named this present prize also The Longitude Prize has been an attempt by them to ‘establish’ by association with the original Longitude Prize this present competition as being ‘authoritative; and so it is just another ‘land grab’ attempt by the establishment governors and scientists and publicly funded bodies who like to think they count for more than most.

In the sense that history is ‘dead’ – then so far as this present Longitude Prize goes the allusions to the history of the original Longitude Prize invokes only ennui and dismay in hearts more truly scientific and endeavouring.

The format of both Longitude Prizes was chosen to be a competition.  Again, chosen maybe by the latter in homage to the former?  But also the choice of a competition as a format is a political and an ideological statement.  Let us look at this another way so as to be able to see more clearly what I mean by this.  Let us suppose what it could else have been instead of a competition.

Now instead of pitting ‘teams’ of scientists against one another so that there becomes only one winner as a necessary outcome; could not The Longitude Prize organisers have elected for a cooperative and joint effort to work towards  solving a serious scientific problem of our day?  They reply, I hear; that competition spurs endeavour and it also whets ambition and sets a challenge.

Now, should a scientist by occupation be moved to his or her work primarily by a response to ambition, to winning ahead of his/her colleagues and by the lure of a money prize?  One would like to think that occupational scientists are in the first place vocational and committed to an advancement of general welfare.

In the second place, to place a lure like these of ambition and a money prize in the sight of the types of scientists who are attracted by such things is to lure those scientists off what they have been working on, and into a field wherein they maybe have to start over; and certainly into a place whereabouts their resources are being newly refocused.

In the third place a competition is a vaccuumer-up of vast resources of time thought equipment and money. All competitors are focussed on the prize, maybe involving tens or hundreds of laboratories and untold numbers of persons, equipment and other vital and scarce resources.  Had the approach been instead to have invited cooperation and coordination between bodies and scientists; then a pooled response and sharing of data and of research is likely to have produced a quicker and a better solution to the problem to be solved. As the poet Homer said ‘When two go together; one sees before the other’.

A competition has the tendency to incite its participants to secrecy and to a withholding of data and research from the public domain or even from other colleagues. That is no way to run a railway!

All the above unpacking of this present Longitude Prize and its vectored ideological basis and shallow chutzpah; nails it by way of its format as a competition – and by its backward looking and by the backward looking carried on by the ‘establishment’ cronies who cooked it up- this all states clearly that the event is not vibrant and healthy but instead more of a showcase; a showcase at present with nothing in it to display.

So what does this mean for its backers and its participants, its funders and its political capital-makers; when the time comes in 2019 when the entries date is due to close and a decision has to be made on who has won the cash?

Suppose, and it is entirely possible, that no-one comes up with an adequate answer – no robust scientific solution to the problem set by The Longitude Prize people?  What then?  Do they just not award a prize and call the whole thing off?  Do they then tacitly admit to having absorbed and to having tied up for several years a vast bundle of scarce and valuable resources etc and to no good purpose?  Unthinkable

Will it not likely be instead, and in the event of no good winner emerging, a mere showcase event in which the item on show is window-dressing and smokes and mirrors?  Can it be anything else, under such a disaster?  Could a government or a scientific community or an organiser body whose lifeblood depends on painting pictures of hyped success; could any of these allow the truth to be known, in such a circumstance?

I hear them answer unanimously – It won’t happen – science will prevail and humanity shall win out.  Of course it will; this is the standard rallying call of our day – that one should place ones faith in what science is able to provide to secure our futures.

It is a similar argument to the Nuclear Button argument, which goes; a politician is compelled to say YES she WILL push the Nuclear Button upon constraint to do so. She is compelled to have to say this, she is hemmed in on every side to say it; that she will push the Nuclear button; because several thousand billion £s worth of armaments; a whole nuclear defence industry becomes redundant and impotent by her omission to assent to pressing that button.

Yet it is labelled ‘a deterrent’. So one assumes one does not take a lead in using an item installed as a ‘deterrent’?  In fact a good deterrent ought never need to be used.  But the threat to use it has to remaining place for it to be an effective deterrent.  But if it fails as a deterrent then does one then use it – not as a deterrent but unluckily as a retaliation?

How can one know that it has failed as a deterrent until the Nuclear weapons of an enemy are raining down on our cities? And by then it is no longer a deterrent – so it can no longer be used as a deterrent; only as vengeance.

So what is our Illustrious Leader actually saying when she confirms with affirmation that she WILL press the Nuclear Button?  It appears by what we have unpacked here above that she is saying that our enemies having destroyed our half of the world will in turn have their half of the world destroyed by her in sheer vengeance – when it is too late for considering vengeance, for we are all dead; and it is also in all reason too late for using the Nuclear arsenals we hold. Why destroy the common man and woman and child in half the world in response when we know that in our half the world our common man and woman and child did not deserve their deaths and destruction?  Truly absurd

Back to The Longitude Prize. The Prize will be awarded whatever happens – and to laudations and great acclaim and publicity – a great hype job whatever the weather or menu. It cannot be otherwise – no establishment figure or organisation is going to do otherwise, regardless of the true value of any discoveries made in the course of the competition.

So how does this prognosis pan out when it is applied to the whole idea, concept, formulation and conduct of this latter day Longitude Prize?  Does it make the whole thing, down to the last jot and tittle pretty pointless because its true value to the world is going to be wholly unassessable; by all except those whose whole vested interest is to cover it over and/or else to hype it as high as it can be got?  We, the little people, will never know, never discover it out  – unless a truly remarkable breakthrough is actually made and put into practice sufficiently to have noticeable and large beneficial results across the world in hospitals and sick bays.

Talking of hospitals and sick bays we come now to our second ground for establishing the vain fatuousness of this latter day Longitude Prize.  Let us take a look at how the challenge was chosen and what challenge was set for the prize money to be won.

  • The goal for The Longitude Prize was set by public election.

There were proposed by the initiators of The Longitude Prize four or six options from which a general response from the wider public was to elect by simple majority vote an aim to pursue; a scientific problem to be solved.

The challenge faced by humans in the light of superbugs and a diminishing effectiveness of antibiotics, a diminution due largely to carelessness in their use and by their overuse; led to the greater public electing the challenge be for the scientists to find a way to use antibiotics so as to enable these to be at their most effective and at the same time for scientists to quell in some way the diminishing effectiveness of antobiotics’ properties to kill infections.

So, the general signifier ‘Antibiotics’ was taken up as the item to be sought in the pursuit by scientists of The Longitude Prize.

I do not well remember all the other problem items which were defeated by the public vote to go for antibiotics; but I do recall one which was in fact and objectively far higher priority than antibiotics; and this one was Clean Water.

Our public in its recent election choices has disgraced itself universally; and in this earlier choice made by it for antibiotics as the aim of The Longitude Prize participant scientists, our public clearly presaged its utter disgrace over the recent EU Referendum result.

Clean Water ought to have been chosen to pursue as a global benefit to the world’s peoples; and not antibiotics.  Not only is clean water prior in logic to antibiotics as a desired item; clean water is a universal essential for life, for human life, whereas however laudable antibiotics might be in themselves; antibiotics as such are not universal essentials to life.  Antibiotics in fact are great blessings but nonetheless for many in our world today unaffordable unobtainable and somewhat irrelevant when the water one is drinking is fouled.

Our great general public, taught as its masters have elected to teach them, chose in their election of antibiotics as the Longitude Prize problem to be solved; a problem which most hit their own personal fears and hopes; and (or but) in them choosing antibiotics they were happy to allow a potential vital and massive help to many many persons, many much less fortunate others, to be relegated by their narrower self-interests. This was shameful; and it is why the choice should not have been put to general election; since our people have learned only to serve themselves, it seems.

Now let us talk about the topic of antibiotics themselves as having been elected to pursue a solution for.  For this we need some history.

  • Is chasing a solution in antibiotics a misplaced, mistaken, act?

The question here simply put is: should antibiotics in fact have made it to the final list of electable choices?  Is their inclusion in this list merely yet another signal of an anachronistic ‘living in the past’ of the organisers and of the participants to the Prize? I tend to think so.

It seems to me like scientists being asked to and seeking to reinvent a cartwheel that has had its day.  At the (largely accidental) discovery of penicillin, the first discovered of the antibiotics, just as large resources have been hoovered into this present Longitude Prize completion; once penicillin became known and its wonderful properties for medicine; massive resources likewise were suddenly switched direction into research on antibiotics.

New antibiotics were found and put into practice.  The old research, like the very promising and valuable research on things called Bacteriophages, died overnight. All the money was placed on 32 Red.  The victors in the antibiotics race held the field and as victors they wrote the time’s medical history and they also governed medical things after their own images.

Just as when nowadays a new Smartphone comes onto the market, many eager must-haves go out and obtain one at almost any cost; often to be hip and to look cool, and to be seen to be so; things work just like this in science and in history and in politics and in any and every study and occupation under the sun – especially in war and in competitions.  (Have we not seen all this demonstrated here by the recent gloved-iron-fist coup takeover in Britain by the for-a-long-time-latent Tory-hawk backwards-seers?)

As with many items of history worth preserving, and for which there is room to subsist in any balanced and reasonable society, so much has been utterly lost to us which is in every way good and profitable; so with research into Bacteriophages, and so with research for good alternatives to antibiotics.

To believe antibiotics are able to be resuscitated and kept alive on life support is for one’s own mental life to be in need of resuscitation and life-support. To have invested so heavily, psychologically and monetarily, in them for so long (as cash cows for the pharmacy industries?) is to have had blinkered vision. It does not take a brilliant mind to figure that in life there are no ‘magic bullets’; that ‘all things must pass’ and that ‘every dog has his day’. Surely the scientists knew this day would come when it is time to move on and to seek other solutions to the antibiotics problem than just chasing after ‘more of the same’.

If not, then truly they are but ‘creatures of a day’.

Ironically, after what I have written about The Longitude Prize and its looking backwards, that an answer to the medical problems infections pose might be found in the past, in history and in looking there for one; might sound hypocrisy on my part.  It is not looking to the past for authority or seeking there for credibility and safety and assurance, and with a bland sentiment; but in looking there in places for the cul-de-sacs and dead-ends which were allowed to happen by – to be frank – by our collective ignorance and by our misplaced and overconfident belief in ourselves – so that we considered we knew best and had the answers but instead left them behind to fade to obscurity.

As a result of these bad collective decisions taken on our parts in the past we have come to this point in the present in which we are making utterly zany and bizarre decisions; being mistakes as a people and as a populace and as a community.  Hence we chose not Clean Water but Antibiotics; we chose not to ‘reclaim the nation’ but in fact we blindly handed the nation over to ‘a bunch of bandits’ – and however much one thinks otherwise right now it will be shown to be the case.

Now: something about the language in which the challenge of The Longitude Prize is presented by its organisers in their publicity. Here is some of their material:

‘The challenge is to create a cost-effective, accurate, rapid, and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time.

Is the list of criteria a prioritised list here?  Is ‘cost-effective’ top of the tree of life?  Seems so – in our times – in our times all things are governed by their costs to the economy, to our pockets. ‘Accurate, rapid,’? – Good, good.  ‘Easy-to-use’ is odd? Why easy to use?  Are ‘health professionals’ baffled by more complicated procedures?  A ‘test’ singular – well we know of One Ring To Rule Them All, but one single test which is capable of allowing ‘ health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time’. 

This surely is asking for The Magic Bullet?  Can any person even conceive of such a test being possible, which is able to pinpoint what infection is present and so indicate what specific treatment is most desirable?  This is pie in the sky talk.  It’s the ‘give us the tool and we’ll finish the job’ kind of sentiment; words styled and chosen and formulated to offer more hope than sense.  In short: hype.

How is it that organisers of these events like The Longitude Prize; on the one hand give over to a general public a choice of election for a scientific task to be solved, and so ends up with Antibiotics and not Clean Water; and on the other hand writes copy like this in their publicity material which talks to that same general public in Pinocchio and Snow White terms and manner?

One suspects that the whole exercise of The Longitude Prize is merely a Bad Dream troubling some Civil Servant’s head; and aimed at keeping us all enamoured of a ruling class out to exploit its position and to please itself.

And this haute condescension; whereabouts might it have been seen before and recently – today?  Let’s look at BBC Radio 4 today at 18.30 with the programme series called ‘The Museum of Curiosity’.  A guy was a guest panellist who was in Holy Orders as an ecologist conservationist. I say this sarcastically – but also to make a point.

In the days of The British Empire we great and glorious nation as we are; went overseas to bring civilisation to the world’s unfortunate benighted-without-us peoples. This was the general Party Line of the day. Clergy went all over the world from Britain bringing the Lord Jesus to benighted peoples; and to be frank many peoples found The Lord Jesus because of their endeavours; and in despite of the colonial exploitation of these peoples by the secular British governors.  Some British believed The Party Line and some just peddled it to extort whatever they could from their situation. Same as today much-wise

The conservationist guy on ’The Museum of Curiosity’ was in Borneo onetime recently; commissioned by who-knows? – and he was there in pursuit of evidence of unlawful trading in animals, some in danger of dwindling numbers – and one of his pursuit was an illegal bear farm.  He has been trained here in UK to doctorate level.

The question never arose about why he a Briton was chosen to go to Borneo and to do these evangelical conservation duties – how did the Borneo authorities view it, was it part of ‘tied-aid’ to Borneo etc, etc?  The parallel with The British Empire missionary is apposite here. It seems very much an affront to my mind to think to send over an educated Briton to Borneo to gather evidence in this way?  Why not train up a Borneo person; and give the work to that person?  The condescension in the act is appalling, and unlike the authentic missionaries’ efforts, lacking in all grace.

Who might we be in Britain to go abroad hawking our conservation values (which like prophets are not heeded in their own countries) and take the high moral ground in faraway places and so forth when guys in Borneo like guys here are for the most part making ends meet as best they can?  The conservationist was pretty blasé and easy about his treks as if he accepted, or perhaps he had not thought through, all the implications of his industry.

We here in Britain are yearly the cause of far greater and far more general environmental harm and degradation in the world than perhaps the whole of such harms contributed by Borneo over the past two or three decades. As we export our conservation and our conservationists so we export a great deal more pollution and degradation of nature.  Get one’s own house in order first.

It is all as wicked and absurd as the ‘cease fire’ called for in Aleppo this week. Armies there face one another bombing, shooting, going all out to kill and defeat the other; and aid agencies are seeking to bring humanitarian aid into the city for those trapped in it. Like the competition of The Longitude Prize the war in Aleppo is for victory and for the spoils of victory; whereas the aid agencies are for a cooperative effort to feed and succour those in need there.

Absurd that one set of humans who subsist almost beside another set of humans; one set hell-bent on death destruction acquisition and consolidation of power; the other similarly dead set and in earnest, but about keeping alive and well and safe from harm people situated  in the same place, some maybe the same people.  How crazy is human behaviour?  What a waste of all good things war is – and the persons responsible for waging wars likewise are a waste – a waste of time – their wills being imposed by use of violent force by their armed forces – who themselves are stupid or plain nasty for doing this dirty work.

I will round-up now. I want to add that in the present the victors in science hold up the fasces of the Legion of quantum physics and the Legion of mathematics as they go to battle – these are the powers and theirs the victory which took the spoils.

A TV programme this evening which my wife was watching laid out how life was achieved before computerisation; and specifically on the railways of Britain. Fascinating facts like the one that at one time some Victorian cities could expect up to 12 deliveries of post by postmen (and by train) every day at their dwellings – incredible in today’s world!   A few years back I was given a tour at a Railway Museum of a Signal box – a thing of the past – and shown the principles on how a signalman worked so as to keep safe the various trains and tracks which were his job to manage at his point of the line.

The sheer elegance and beauty of the machinery and its operations was something to behold.  Watertight safety of journeys by use of gear all controlled by hand – and unable to lead to a collision or derailment – even when a signalman should have collapsed or feinted

Likewise on the singe track railways a single baton was used and passed on to the train guard whose train was travelling the single track at any given time – in one direction or the other.  No train allowed on the single track sections of the line without the guard for that train having in his possession, in his hand, the single baton which governed who was to be on that stretch of single track line and at what time and for how long.

For us in the present the final irony is in this – that in that bygone age of trains and signal boxes and batons; when labouring by hand and manual work was the norm; an age in which plain people in manual work learned and saw for themselves the necessity and the effects of doing things right and in good order; and realised graphically the vital importance of this punctiliousness in all things; in such an age awareness of, maybe even respect for, the value and the importance of those things one cannot see and touch; such as another’s rights and liberties, or a person’s beliefs; seem to have been greater and more ingrained than in this present age of ‘virtual’ things and ‘cloud’ servers and of ‘digital’ appliances; and of unbalanced emphases on non-industrial, non-arduous lives, all of which rely so fully and so abjectly on these fantastic non-material things for continuation in the shape of coherent societies.

            ‘Sweet are the uses of adversity.’

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