With all that was going on in the first weeks of World War II, it’s hard to imagine that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would take time to ponder the existence of life on other planets, unless he was looking for more allies with better weapons. And yet, he did. An essay entitled Are We Alone in the Universe? that Churchill began in 1939 and revised in the 1950s was discovered last year and reveals his answer.
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.
The essay had apparently been donated to the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, and buried under the mounds of other papers written by the prodigious Churchill until 2016, when museum director Timothy Riley rediscovered it. He shared the 13 pages of Churchillian ET musings with Israeli astrophysicist Mario Livio, who published a review this week in Nature Journal.
Livio notes that he was surprised by Churchill’s interest in extraterrestrial life, even though as a young man Winston was a fan of both Charles Darwin and H.G. Wells, wrote science articles for magazines and newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s, regularly met with scientists and was the first prime minister to appoint a science advisor. There is also a claim that in the 1950s Churchill ordered a cover-up of a UFO sighting for 50 years in order to avoid causing a “mass panic.”
I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets.
In the essay, Churchill sounds like a modern astrophysicist himself. He speculates on the need for a zone around a star where the temperatures and conditions are right for the existence of liquid water on a planet – what we now call the habitable or Goldilocks zone. He also considers the importance of gravity in maintaining an atmosphere and concludes that only Venus and Mars had enough to possibly join Earth as a life-supporting planet in our solar system. Churchill believed that humans would someday verify this.
One day, possibly even in the not very distant future, it may be possible to travel to the Moon, or even to Venus or Mars.
Livio concludes his review of Are We Alone in the Universe? with his thoughts on what Winston Churchill might think of the current controversies surrounding science in the U.S.
Churchill was a science enthusiast and advocate, but he also contemplated important scientific questions in the context of human values. Particularly given today’s political landscape, elected leaders should heed Churchill’s example: appoint permanent science advisers and make good use of them.
We need more than a bust of Churchill in Washington … we need the man himself.