Encyclopedia > Longitude

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Longitude, denoted λ, describes the location of a place on Earth east or west of a north-south line called the prime meridian. Longitude is given in an angular measurement ranging from 0 at the Prime Meridian to plus or minus 180. Unlike latitude which has the equator as a natural starting position, there is no natural starting position for longitude. Therefore an arbitrary starting position was chosen that passed through Greenwich in London, England.

Longitude may be determined by calcuating the time difference between the location a person is in and UTC (UTC is the same time zone that the Prime Meridian is in). Since there are 24 hours in a day and 360 degrees in a circle, the sun moves 15 degrees per hour (360°/24 hours = 15° per hour). So if the time zone a person is in is three hours ahead of UTC then that person is at 45° longitude (3 hours × 15° per hour = 45°). In order to perform this calculation, however, a person needs to have a chronometer (watch) set to UTC and needs to determine local time by solar observation.

A line of constant longitude is a meridian, and half of a great circle.

This measurement is important to navigation; the discovery of how to measure it accurately was one of the more important discoveries of the 1700s. See Dava Sobel's book: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time for a good historical overview. This genius was John Harrison who eventually received the Longitude Prize.

See also: latitude, navigation, sextant, dead reckoning, time zone, Celestial navigation, Dyson sphere.

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