We remember Winston Churchill as a great wartime leader, an eloquent politician, and a Nobel prize-winning writer. But Churchill was also a deeply curious person who really loved science.
Fascinated by science and technology from a young age, in the 1920s and 30s Churchill penned a series of popular science articles for various newspapers and magazines. He regularly talked with scientists and was the first U.K. prime minister to appoint a science adviser.
Now a U.S. museum has found one of Churchill’s unpublished science essays, written in 1939 (just weeks after World War II broke out).
The 11-page essay, titled “Are We Alone In The Universe?” was found by Timothy Riley, a recently appointed director of the National Churchill Museum in Missouri. He passed the manuscript on to Israeli astrophysicist and writer Mario Livio.
“Imagine my thrill that I may be the first scientist to examine this essay,” Livio writes in a Nature comment piece published this week.
“At a time when a number of today's politicians shun science, I find it moving to recall a leader who engaged with it so profoundly.”
Churchill mused about the topic of extraterrestrial life with scientific rigour, allowing for knowledge that was to be discovered many decades after his time. According to Livio, the lost essay builds upon what’s known as the ‘Copernican Principle’—the idea that the universe is so huge, it’s likely that life on Earth is not a unique event.
Churchill was friends with the science fiction master H.G. Wells, whose War Of The Worlds novel about a Martian invasion had been adapted into a panic-inducing radio play in 1938, shortly before Churchill started work on this manuscript.
But his essay is much more than speculation. Churchill writes that life as we know it requires water and discusses the possibility of liquid water on other bodies in our Solar System. He defines what we now call the ‘Goldilocks zone’, the habitable region around a star where it’s neither too hot nor too cold for a planet, concluding that Mars and Venus could be candidates for life.
WATCH STEPHEN HAWKING EXPLAIN THE GOLDILOCKS ZONE
But Churchill didn’t even stop at our region of the galaxy, pointing out that with “several thousand millions” of other stars out there, many of them could host planets. As Livio emphasises, Churchill’s musings about exoplanets were truly decades ahead of his time, since astronomers only started confirming their existence in the 1990s.
“I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets,” he wrote, before concluding on a bleaker note, reflective of the turbulent times on the brink of World War II:
“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.”
Header image: Winston Churchill’s memorial statue in Prague. IMAGE VIA SHUTTERSTOCK