In recently unearthed essay, Winston Churchill anticipated space travel and extraterrestrial life

Quoting Winston Churchill has always been something of a pastime.

If you’re going through hell, keep going. 

History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

What hasn’t often been quoted is the essay he penned in 1939 titled “Are We Alone in the Universe?” concerning that very question. That isn’t surprising, as the 11 typed pages were never published before being lost to the world for more than three decades.

Churchill, who served as British prime minister from 1940 to 1945 and then again from 1951 to 1955, updated his manuscript in the late 1950s while staying at a French villa owned by Emery Reves, his publisher. Nothing came of it, and eventually Reves’s wife Wendy passed the manuscript along to the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Mo. There it gathered dust until last year, when the museum’s new director, Timothy Riley, discovered and handed it over to Israeli astrophysicist and author Mario Livio.

In an article published in this week’s edition of the science journal Nature, Livio examined the essay’s contents. Churchill’s work will be unveiled today at the National Churchill Museum, where visitors can view several of its pages.

The most striking takeaway from the essay is how modern Churchill’s conclusions were. One obvious example: “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,” he wrote 30 years before Neil Armstrong’s historic journey.

His more nuanced views of the potential for extraterritorial life, though, “mirrors many modern arguments in astrobiology,” most notably that in the ever-expanding vastness of the universe, such life is likely. As Livio wrote:

In essence, he builds on the framework of the ‘Copernican Principle’ — the idea that, given the vastness of the Universe, it is hard to believe that humans on Earth represent something unique.

Perhaps Churchill’s most intuitive prediction, as Livio noted, was that of the habitable zone. While Churchill didn’t use this modern term, he closely described it.

After noting that “all living things of the type we know require water,” Churchill observed that the presence of water — thus the potential for life — likely requires a rocky planet at the right distance from a star to be “between a few degrees of frost and the boiling point of water.”

Then, as Livio wrote, “Churchill also considers the ability of a planet to retain its atmosphere, explaining that the hotter a gas is, the faster its molecules are moving and the more easily they can escape. Consequently, stronger gravity is necessary to trap gas on a planet in the long term.”

Given these requirements, the former prime minister concluded that Venus and Mars were the only places in our solar system that could support life.

In other words, he predicted the first definition of the habitable zone — more than 60 years ago. According to PBS, “The habitable zone first encompassed the orbits of Venus to Mars, planets close enough to the sun for solar energy to drive the chemistry of life — but not so close as to boil off water or break down the organic molecules on which life depends.”

One of the aspects of Churchill’s essay most praised by Livio, ironically, is a segment in which Churchill was off the mark.

In a segment focused on other solar systems (“I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets,” he wrote), Churchill wrote in affirmation of a model suggested in 1917 by astrophysicist James Jeans which argued that stars are “formed from the gas that is torn off a star when another star passes close to it.”

But Livio praised Churchill’s skepticism of the now dismissed model. Via Livio:

Now Churchill shines. With the healthy skepticism of a scientist, he writes: “But this speculation depends upon the hypothesis that planets were formed in this way. Perhaps they were not. We know there are millions of double stars, and if they could be formed, why not planetary systems?”

In his essay, Churchill blended his science with his experience with humankind: “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.”

Churchill’s curiosity about the universe shouldn’t come as a surprise. In addition to being a regaled statesman and military strategist, Churchill had a scientific mind.

“He had a tremendous intellect,” Westminster College president Benjamin Ola Akande said in a statement. “Even though Great Britain was on the brink of war at the time, Churchill continually educated himself and wrote thought-provoking essays that demonstrated his leadership beyond government and military affairs, but also in science.”

“Renaissance man that he was, Churchill was keenly interested in science,” Livio said in a statement. “For example, he was the first British prime minister to hire a science adviser and made the UK a friendly environment for science and scientists.”

If nothing else, the unearthed essay serves as a reminder that politics and science can — and indeed have — gone hand in hand, each benefiting from the other. In a world in which the two are treated by some as adversaries, this message might be more powerful than ever.

As Livio wrote, “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. … Particularly given today’s political landscape, elected leaders should heed Churchill’s example: appoint permanent science advisers and make good use of them.”

Advertisements