Feb 19, 2023 I Brent Swancer

Winston Churchill, Extraterrestrials, and Aliens on the Moon

Widely considered one of the 20th century's most significant figures, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was a British statesman, soldier, and writer who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom twice, from 1940 to 1945 during the Second World War, and again from 1951 to 1955, and he also was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. He was known for actively combating the growing threat of militarism in Nazi Germany and as a popular wartime leader, overseeing British involvement in the Allied war effort against the Axis powers during World War II. He also was keenly interested in science and technology, the first prime minister to employ a science adviser and supporting the development of radar and Britain's nuclear program, as well as actively funding laboratories, telescopes and technology development that would go on to spawn post-war discoveries and inventions in fields from molecular genetics to X-ray crystallography. Although Churchill is mostly known a powerful wartime leader, as well as for his rousing, bombastic speeches and unfortunately also for his heavy drinking, what is perhaps lesser known is that he was also keenly interested in aliens and life beyond our world.

Winston Churchill

Churchill’s interest in life beyond our planet goes back to at least 1942, when he penned a thoughtful and remarkably scientific contemplation of the potential for alien life elsewhere in the solar system, and based on much consideration his main candidates for this were Venus, Mars, and the moon. At the time this wasn’t as absurd an idea as it may sound now. Our knowledge of other planets and the solar system at large was in its infancy, and this was a time when people were still seriously considering that there may be aliens on Mars, Venus, and yes, even the moon. It was not so far-fetched at the time, not merely confined to pulp science fiction stories, but rather a possibility that was pondered by many great minds. Churchill himself was very astute and scientific in his observations of other planets and their possibility for life, only let down by our lack of knowledge on these matters, and he meticulously went through which planets would be good candidates for aliens and which were not. He would write of this in his essay, titled Are There Men on the Moon?:

Now, if we confine ourselves to the sort of things we know, and admit that water is a necessary ingredient of their life and being, we are restricted within comparatively narrow limits in the conditions in which such entities can exist. As we all know, if it is too hot water boils. Even the most meagre acquaintance with hygiene tells us that the best way to sterilize anything is to dip it in boiling water. On the other hand, if the surroundings are too cold, water freezes, and it is difficult to imagine that life could ever be formed in a world of ice and snow, even though creatures, developed from types which were produced in kinder surroundings, have managed to survive in arctic regions.

Briefly, then, if life in the form we know it is to exist anywhere it can only be in regions of comparatively moderate temperature, say between a few degrees of frost and the boiling point of water. Obviously the stars are completely ruled out for this reason. For these consist of gigantic masses of incandescent gas in which every chemical compound is split up in its simplest components and in which the mere idea of life is an absurdity. But the sun, which is a comparatively insignificant star in the Milky Way—which is the name we give to our galaxy—is surrounded, as we know, by planets of which our world is one. On our earth life has developed. It has been able to do this because the temperature is neither too high nor too low. It is very easy to see what fixes the temperature of our earth. It is the temperature at which the heat falling upon it from the sun is equal to the heat which it radiates away into outer space. If it gained more than it lost it would get hotter, until the export of heat equalled the import, and vice versa. Mathematicians have an exact way of calculating this. But even without mathematics, it is clear that if the earth were further away from the sun it would receive less heat, and therefore that its temperature would be lower.

From these considerations alone it is safe to rule out what are known as the outer planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and the recently discovered Pluto—as possible abodes of life. There remain Mars, Venus and Mercury. The mean temperature of Mars is well below the freezing point of water. It is a cold, arid planet with a climate somewhat like the top of Mount Everest would be if the sun were partly obscured, but with much less ice owing to a shortage of water. Life may exist there; indeed, the changes of colour in its spring and winter seem to indicate that some form of vegetation—be it only lichen—enlivens the faintly sunlit landscape. But the circumstances are harsh and forbidding, the atmosphere is thin and dry and short of oxygen, and there is little reason to suppose that any very highly organized forms are likely to have arisen.

Venus, on the other hand, being nearer to the sun, is considerably warmer than we are. Apparently there is moisture in plenty, indeed, from our point of view, too much. For it is covered with a perpetual layer of cloud which prevents us seeing what the surface may be like. Though there does not seem to be much evidence of oxygen, it may be that in this hothouse atmosphere an elaborate flora and fauna exist, perhaps even intelligent beings. But unless they have developed some form of aeroplane which enables them to rise above the clouds, it is quite possible that if such intellectual creatures live there, they are quite unaware of the existence of an immense and complex universe of stars and nebulae outside their own world, and that they are living in the egocentric belief that they are the one and only habitation fit for reasoning beings.

On Mercury, the innermost planet, it seems unlikely that life has arisen. Water would boil on the sunny side, while the face remote from the sun is so cold that most of the planet’s surface would be intolerable for any living entity we know. But what, it may be asked, of the moon?—our own satellite approximately the same distance from the sun as we are, and whose temperature therefore must be about the same as our own.

Now Churchill at no point tries to make the argument that the moon would be some Eden full of life and with vast cities and a flourishing civilization, some oasis of the solar system. Indeed, he calls it “an arid desert, almost entirely bereft of air or water, on which only the lowest forms of life can possibly exist,” but he was very open to the idea that life could be there, maybe some form of life with rudimentary intelligence. Churchill then goes on to contemplate life beyond our solar system, out in the furthest reaches of space. He would muse:

But what about planets surrounding the other stars? The sun is merely one star in our galaxy, which contains several thousand millions of others. At first sight it might appear obvious that these others may be presumed to possess planets, which, if they happen to be at an appropriate distance and of the proper size, may be surrounded by atmospheres and be watered by rain as we are. This is probably true of a large number, though doubt has been cast upon it for a rather interesting reason. Astronomers for over a hundred years have been trying to account for the fact that there are all these planets surrounding the sun. They are all of them moving in much the same plane and in the same direction. Surely this should provide a clue.

He goes into a surprisingly rational and scientific idea on how planets are formed and how they might develop atmospheres and conditions for life as we know it. He also defines what is known today as the habitable zone — that narrow 'Goldilocks' region around a star that is neither too cold nor too hot, so that liquid water may exist on the surface of a rocky planet. In addition, he discusses the possibility of travelling to the stars and planets beyond the solar system, the limits of the speed of light, and even how we might overcome that. With regards to the possibility of life on these other worlds and traveling to them he writes:

In any event, I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets and, therefore, that our little earth is unique. Once we admit that the other stars probably also have planets, at any rate a goodly proportion of them, it is more than likely that a large fraction of these will be the right size to keep on their surface water and, possibly, an atmosphere of some sort; and, furthermore, at the proper distance from their parent sun, to maintain a suitable temperature.

Do they house living creatures, or even plants? The answer to this question may never be known. It is conceivable that 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. The moon is only some 200,000 miles away, so that at a speed of 300 miles an hour it would only take three or four weeks to reach it; in interplanetary travel, if it comes at all, we must certainly reckon with far higher speeds than this, so that the time to reach the moon might be a matter of days rather than weeks. Venus and Mars are, of course, much farther away—some hundreds of times in fact—so that to reach them will probably be a matter of months at the very least, even if interplanetary travel proceeds at the rate of many thousands of miles an hour. Still, the possibility of one day exploring these planets cannot be excluded.

It is rash to set limits to the progress of science. A man who had maintained at Queen Victoria’s Jubilee that within fifty years one would fly the Atlantic in a matter of hours would have risked being certified and locked up; yet we have seen this happen, and in the circumstances I am not prepared to rule out with any confidence the possibility one day of journeys through space in vessels carrying supplies of food and oxygen to the moon and the nearer planets.

All we can say is that with hundreds of thousands of nebulae, each containing thousands of millions of suns, the odds are enormous that there must be immense numbers which possess planets whose circumstances would not render life impossible. If we are sufficiently self-centred and choose to deny that any of these support life, no one can prove we are wrong. But 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.

Although his ideas on how planets form was wrong, based on an outdated model presuming that that planets are formed from the gas that is torn off a star when another star passes close to it, a discarded theory suggested by astrophysicist James Jeans in 1917, he at least admits he could be wrong, and he is remarkably on the money with a lot of his observations. What makes the essay even more remarkable is how prescient and observant it is. After all, this was decades before the discoveries of thousands of extrasolar planets began in the 1990s, at a time when we knew very little about what lies out there in the void of space, yet his reasoning and observations are incredibly astute and accurate, mirroring many modern arguments in the possibility of life on other worlds and astrobiology. This was a time when space travel was still decades away and our understanding of the planets in our own solar system wasn’t even a thing, let alone beyond it, so the essay is very unique for its era and just shows what a contemplative and imaginative man of science Churchill was.

The manuscript in question was an unpublished work passed on to the US National Churchill Museum archives in Foulton, Missouri in the 1980s by Wndy Reves, the widow of Churchill’s literary agent Emery Reves, after decades of lingering in her private collection. The first draft was apparently written in 1939, as Europe was teetering on the brink of war, and was likely inspired to some extent by the 1938 US broadcast of the radio drama “The War of The Worlds,” which was an adaptation of a 1898 story of the same name by H. G. Wells, who happens to have been a friend of Churchill’s. Apparently Churchill had considered new titles including “Are We Alone in Space?” and “Are We Alone in the Universe?” Churchill originally sold the story to the “Sunday Dispatch,” but it remained unpublished, and would later somehow wind up in the possession of Reves and then remain dormant for years before resurfacing. It is all a fascinating glimpse into early speculation on the nature of our universe, and a little known corner of the life of one of the greatest politicians to have ever lived. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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