Greatest Scientific Problems

November 12, 2015

It’s day 8 and 713 miles to Ascension. We all have our routines and fill our days with eating, sleeping, watches, science, cooking, cleaning and down time. This could be anything such as laundry, writing, reading and exercise. Starting yesterday we all began getting completely soaked outside or having to stay inside enduring the heat, humidity and lack of fresh air from the closed hatches! One of my activities is learning how to use a sextant which I inquired if there was one on board beforehand. I soon found out it is actually the law from our Captain to have it on a commercial vessel crossing the ocean called Code One from various maritime agencies. If the United States ever decided to shut the GPS down or terrorists were able to get their hands on the GPS satellites we would be prepared to navigate the next (fill in miles) without it!

Holly and I have taken the sextant out a few times and she explained how to use it. There is also a paperback called Astro Navigation Handbook published by the RYA (Royal Yachting Association) to make it easier to understand. Meanwhile I have just finished the book Longitude, The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel and couldn’t put it down. This is exactly what we are trying to do!

The plastics problem may not be one of the greatest scientific problems of our day but it is definitely in the top five. We were just talking about this tonight in the cockpit after dinner. The problem of course is trying to find a way for people to change their attitude about how to use less plastic in their lives and how to dispose of it properly. Eventually we agreed that there needs to be a substitute for plastic, which seems impossible, and even more difficult because the plastic already in the environment and in our seas will not break down anytime soon. I was told 450 years for water bottles, fishing gear up to 600 and the tiny particles of plastics essentially never. More from the scientists about that later!

In Sobel’s book even Galileo thought that finding Longitude was an impossible task and was sure it was never going to have anything to do with time. Was he ever wrong! Galileo was convinced that using the celestial bodies in the heavens was a better option particularly using Jupiter’s moons where he was able to calculate the orbital periods.

So we have our big problem and they had theirs which for them cost many lives at sea, human suffering, sunken ships and cargo. It also wreaked economic havoc on a huge scale since vessels like whaling ships, merchant, warships, pirate ships all had to navigate by latitude alone which confined them to a narrow but safer passage. Using latitude along with the other instruments at the time, the astrolobe, cross-staff, back staff, the North Star, the sun’s position etc. still did not give them accurate information of where they were.

I will have to tell my crewmates now that we have had our first two miserable rain days the agony seamen went through when they had scurvy from no veg & fruits with vitamin C. It will make them feel better. With these ships getting lost because of not knowing longitude, especially in the doldrums where we have been motor sailing the past week with virtually no wind their connective tissue would deteriorate. Their blood vessels would leak and they would look bruised all over. If they were injured their wounds wouldn’t heal, legs swelled, gums bleed, teeth loosened and would gasp for breath. When the blood vessels around their brains ruptured they would die.

The man that eventually solved the Longitude problem was John Harrison born 1693 in Yorkshire, England. Quoting from the book, “Harrison had no formal education or apprenticeship to any watchmaker. Harrison nevertheless constructed a series of virtually friction-free clocks that required no lubrication and no cleaning, that were made from materials impervious to rust, and that kept their moving parts perfectly balanced in relation to one another, regardless of how the world pitched or tossed about them.

He did away with the pendulum, and he combined different metals inside his works in such a way that when one component expanded or contracted with changes in temperature, the other counteracted the change and kept the clock’s rate constant. A mechanical genius who pioneered the science of portable precision timekeeping, devoted his life to this quest. He accomplished what Newton had feared was impossible: He invented a clock that would carry the true time from the home port, like an eternal flame, to any remote corner of the world.”

Before John Harrison came on the scene the navigation state was so pathetic they decided to make a Longitude Act which was issued by Queene Anne July 8th, 1714. This was in response to one of the worst shipwrecks in English history when in 1707 four warships sank off the Scilly Isles drowning 2,000 men. They thought they were somewhere near Il’e dOuessant off the coast of France. The Act was set up in order for anyone who could come up with a solution to find Longitude they would be given a huge reward. 20,000 pounds, (millions of dollars today) would be given for a method to determine longitude to an accuracy of ½ a degree of a great circle.

It would be a great idea if there was a substitute for plastic and I am getting more optimistic that we can do more to clean up our oceans. The Plastic Act won’t be happening with huge rewards but in our discussion tonight there are companies that make recycled plastic products such as razors from yogurt containers.

As we sail onward to our destination, thinking about why we are here, what we are trying to accomplish you only have to look up at the stars and believe eventually it will be determination and ingenuity that will solve the world’s problems like the Longitude one, Global warming and plastics. 285 years ago John Harrison made his first sea clock, the H-1 weighing 75 pounds, four feet high, wide and deep and we now have atomic clocks and miniscule time keepers. A Global Positioning System allows us to whizz across the ocean and not spend hours with a sextant measuring the degrees of celestial objects and calculations from the nautical almanac.

  • Simone Machamer
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