On this date in 1714, the British Parliament passed the Longitude Act, offering prizes to anyone who could accurately measure longitude at sea. Failure to measure longitude was causing massive economic damage from shipwrecks and piracy. Galileo had established a method using Jupiter’s moons, generally accepted soon after his 1642 death, but it only worked on land. Use of Galileo’s methods on land led to many maps being redrawn, “shrinking” France on maps and causing King Louis XIV to complain that he was losing more territory to astronomers than to his enemies. At sea, the tossing of the waves, changes in the weather, and other factors made the problem more difficult, leading to the Longitude Act. The problem was eventually solved by the chronometer, invented by self-educated carpenter John Harrison, who overcame resistance from multiple fronts, including religious leaders who, like Galileo, were convinced the solution was in the stars of the heavens, sometimes citing Bible verses like Psalm 19:1 – “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.” The Board of Longitude paid out over £100,000 for research and in prizes before disbanding in 1828.
Science and religion each have a role to play in improving the lot of mankind on earth, but a lot of unnecessary conflict has come from either claiming a monopoly on worldly progress. While “the heavens declare the glory of God,” the stars are also “for signs and for seasons, and for days and years.” But that is not all they are for. They also declare that the world is not all there is, and that we are to love others as the Creator of the stars loves us. Therefore, let’s all give each other some latitude, or even some longitude.