Winston Churchill is perhaps the UK’s most iconic leader in recent history. He served as the British prime minister from 1940 to 1945, a turbulent time in which Churchill saw his nation fend off the Nazis, and then again from 1951 to 1955. Some might not know this, but ‘The Bulldog’ was also a keen astronomy buff. In 1939, on the eve of the war with Nazi Germany, the famous statesman penned an essay on alien life and space travel. It was never known to the public until it was brought to light Wednesday in the science journal Nature.
“I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets,” Churchill wrote. The first exoplanets — planets outside our solar system — were first discovered in 1992.
Astrophysicist Mario Livio discovered the document while browsing the archives of the US National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri.
Churchill, among his many interests, was a man of science. Before committing himself to politics, Churchill was a famous journalist who approached a wide array of subjects from life in Britain to war to science. In the 1920s and 1930s, he wrote many popular science articles about evolution, cells, and even nuclear fusion. His eye for science would do Britain much good when he came to office as he placed great emphasis on research and development. For instance, he was the first prime minister to employ a science adviser when he hired physicist Frederick Lindemann in the early 1940s.
Despite Churchill’s rich history as a science enthusiast and supporter, Livio was still very surprised when he was handed the 11-page article, ‘Are We Alone in the Universe?’, which muses about our place in the universe.
The first draft was written in 1939 and revised in the late 1950s but was never published. Instead, the manuscript was passed to the US National Churchill Museum archives in the 1980s where only a couple of people knew about it.
His essay contains remarks that are not only scientifically sound but modern for his time. For instance, he wrote: “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.” Only a couple years later his beloved London would be tormented by Nazi V2 rockets but ironically the same technology was then used to put Neil Armstrong on the moon thirty years later.
It’s in his well-thought arguments about alien life where this essay shines, however, many which mirror contemporary ideas like the ‘habitable zone’. “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,” Livio wrote in an op-ed for Nature.
There must be many other planets, Churchill noted, of “the right size to keep… water and possibly an atmosphere”, and “at the proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature.”
Churchill was also well aware that strong gravity was required to root a rich atmosphere in place else the gases would escape in space. He noted Mars and Venus were the only planets in the solar system that could potentially support life, bearing this argument in mind.
The concept of the ‘habitable zone’ or known as the Goldilocks region — not too hot, not too cold so liquid water and an Earth-like atmosphere can be sustained — officially appeared in science papers only in the 1950s. Clearly, Churchill was one of the forward thinkers of his time.
“[…] 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,” Churchill wrote showing he was aware of Edwin Hubble’s work which had found earlier that were millions of galaxies in the universe. The familiar probabilistic argument for alien life was penned decades before Frank Drake published his equation that calculates the odds that other intelligent species capable of communicating exist in the universe.
There’s much politicians can learn from Churchill’s work, from his bulldog tenacity against injustice to the noble appreciation of science and its potential to transform human society for the better.
“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.