Sir Winston Churchill was a man of letters and opinions and although there are numerous volumes of his works to be found, one would never find the man going on about the possibility of alien life on other worlds. Until now. A 1939 essay has been recovered that sheds light on Churchill’s thoughts concerning not only the possibility of but the search for extraterrestrials.
Space reported this week that Winston Churchill, the revered Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II, was very open to the position that alien life was likely to exist. In an essay, “Are We Alone In The Universe?”, he spelled out his reasoning and even put forth a definition for what we today call a “habitable zone.”
“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,” he wrote in the essay, “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, among his many pursuits, was a proponent of science and a bit of an astronomer. (He actually was the first prime minister to appoint a science advisor.) These interests led to an 11-page essay that pondered the search for alien life, an essay that was never formally published and only came to light recently when it was uncovered at the Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri. Although originally written in 1939, it was revised in the late 1950s.
Last year, Timothy Riley, the museum’s director, showed the essay to astrophysicist Mario Livio, who is head of the Institute Science Division at the Space Telescope Science Institute. Livio described the essay, using plenty of exerpts, and Churchill’s very modern approach to science in a recent article for Nature.
“I was amazed to see the title of this article, first of all,” Livio told Space.
“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.”
Churchill wrote (per Phys.org), “I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets.” From that jumping point, the Englishman concluded that it was likely that quite a few planets in the universe that might harbor living organisms. He wrote that, for a planet around some faraway star to be suitable for life, it would have to maintain an orbit that would be sufficiently agreeable to sustaining liquid water.
He wrote that there must be a number of other planets that are “the right size to keep… water and possibly an atmosphere,” and “at the proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature.”
Today we know this orbital area to be the “habitable zone.” And scientists still believe that, when searching for alien life, the presence of liquid water will be a requisite for living organisms to exist.
“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,” Livio wrote in Nature.
Today, the hunt for exoplanets is commonplace, with emphasis being placed on those that might be in habitable zones. Just last week, it was announced, according to the Daily Mail, that a team of researchers led by the University of Hertfordshire had discovered 60 new planets and evidence of 54 more. Some of those planets could be found to be in their stars’ habitable zones.
In 2015, scientists calculated, also according to the Daily Mail, that there were 200 billion planets orbiting parent stars in habitable zones — and that was just in the Milky Way.
Still, the search for alien life has produced no confirmed living organisms outside planet Earth. But Winston Churchill would likely be pleased to note that his is the consensus scientific opinion with regard to alien life and where it will be found.
[Featured Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]