Mega-prizes Got a bright idea for removing carbon dioxide from the world’s atmosphere? Get it past a panel of judges, including James Lovelock, and you could find yourself $25m richer, courtesy of Richard Branson and Al Gore, who launched their Earth Challenge prize in London in early February.
But even if you’re clueless on carbon, you’re sure to find a mega-prize to suit you. Six of the Clay Mathematics Institute’s seven “Millennium Prize Problems” remain unsolved, and there’s $1m on offer for each. Netflix, the US online movie rental service, has $1m for anyone who can improve the algorithm the site uses to recommend movies. And the £100,000 that Ken Livingstone offered four years ago to anyone who could come up with a way to cool down the tube in the summer remains unclaimed. There are many more.
The rise of the mega-prize is a curious phenomenon, combining a 21st-century use of mass communication techniques and PR with a 19th-century belief in the genius inventor, toiling alone without institutional backing. In reality, of course, the only people with the expertise needed to solve these major problems are probably already working in a university or for a large company.
In 1928, Thomas Hardy’s coffin was borne by perhaps the most formidable selection of notables ever to perform this duty: the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin; the leader of the opposition, Ramsay MacDonald; the heads of an Oxford and a Cambridge college; and six authors (Kipling, Housman, Barrie, Shaw, Galsworthy and Gosse). Has this stellar line-up of pall bearers ever been topped? Write in with your suggestions. The best will receive a mystery, Wessex-themed award.
Open Democracy, the left-of-centre political website, has a friend in thriller writer turned campaigner John Le Carré. He is matching any individual donation up to £1,000 in the website’s latest appeal. Under editor Isabel Hilton, the site is now well established (but hardly full of its claimed “free thinking”). Hilton’s linguistic abilities must help. She recently told the RSA Journal: “Between school and college I was bored and taught myself Chinese for fun. I already had Latin, Spanish, French and German.” Wow.
Digital silence John Cage’s 4’33″—a piano piece consisting of 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence—is often seen as the radical outrider of 20th-century classical music. But after Jonathon Keats—a San Francisco-based conceptual artist and Prospect contributor—decided to turn the…