Science First Look

Winston Churchill's 'aliens' essay reveals scientific thinking with a philosophical bent

A newly rediscovered essay by the famed British prime minister written on the eve of World War II discussed the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

Sir Winston Churchill seen through the window of a limousine following his Massachusetts Institute of Technology(MIT) Mid-Century Convocation address delivered at Boston Garden, March 31, 1949.
Gordon N. Converse/The Christian Science Monitor
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Winston Churchill is remembered today as one of the most significant political figures of the 20th century. As prime minister of Britain during World War II, he led his nation to victory in the largest war and most technologically advanced conflict that the world had ever seen.

In an era marked by mechanized conflict, it seems natural that Mr. Churchill would have at least some interest in science, if only to keep up with the Axis war machine. He was, after all, the first prime minister to have a science adviser in his employ. But Churchill's interest in science went far deeper. A recently rediscovered essay written by Churchill in 1939 entitled "Are We Alone in the Universe?", written on the eve of WWII, reveals a discerning and surprisingly insightful interest in big scientific questions that still fascinate and provoke thoughtful questions to this day.

The 11-page essay, written just before Churchill took office, was evidently intended for a newspaper, perhaps London's News of the World. Originally titled "Are We Alone in Space?", it was lightly revised in the 1950s to reflect the latest scientific terminology. But despite attention from the statesman over a span of nearly 20 years, the article went unpublished and was eventually forgotten in the archives of the US National Churchill Museum.

Then, in 2016, new museum director Timothy Riley rediscovered the typewritten manuscript and showed it to astrophysicist Mario Livio. Due to copyright concerns, there are currently no solid plans to publish the piece in full, but Dr. Livio outlined Churchill's essay in an article published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"I was amazed to see the title of this article, first of all," Livio told Space.com. "And then I read it and was even more astonished, because I saw that this great politician is musing about a real scientific topic, an intriguing scientific topic, [and] he is reasoning about this in the same way that a scientist today would go about it."

In the essay, Churchill defined the most important characteristic of life as the ability to "breed and multiply," and wrote that the focus of the essay would be on "comparatively highly-organized life" (presumably multicellular organisms). He then went on to describe the necessity of water for life (though he noted that other liquids could not be ruled out), and then, based on these assumptions, surmised that life could only exist "between a few degrees of frost and the boiling point of water."

This region of not-too-hot and not-too-cold around a star, referred to as the circumstellar habitable zone by today's scientists and the "Goldilocks zone" in the popular press, is still used to evaluate the possibility of life on other planets.

Based on the best scientific research available at the time, Churchill concluded that the only places life could exist in our solar system, apart from Earth, would be on Venus or Mars.

But then, he made a fairly radical and interesting departure from the norm by challenging a then-popular theory of planet formation. The theory, created in 1917 by astrophysicist James Jeans, suggested that planets were formed from the gas torn off a star when another star passed close to it. According to this model, Churchill noted, our solar system would be highly rare, perhaps even unique.

"But this speculation depends upon the hypothesis that planets were formed in this way. Perhaps they were not," wrote Churchill. "We know there are millions of double stars, and if they could be formed, why not planetary systems?"

The bold statement came more than 50 years before the discovery of the first exoplanets. And Churchill didn't stop there.

"I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time," he wrote.

As Britain's prime minister, Churchill supported the creation of scientific infrastructures that not only speeded the end of WWII, but also paved the way for monumental post-war discoveries. In today's political landscape, said Livio, politicians might have something to learn from Churchill's respect for science, letting it work to solve problems associated with food resources, climate change, and diseases, as well as to promote the general advancement of humanity.

"It certainly doesn't help to shun sciences; some of these problems can turn into disasters if nothing is done," Livio told Space.com.

Churchill appears to have believed that "you need to embed all the scientific research and discoveries also in the context of human values, and an understanding of the human condition," he added.