Sir Winston Churchill is best remembered for his place in history as the leader of the United Kingdom during World War II, but he also had many other interests aside from his role in government. Churchill was also a prolific painter, butterfly breeder, bricklayer and, of course, writer. Throughout his life he wrote history, biography, fiction and numerous essays for British newspapers. One such essay, recently uncovered by the U.S. National Churchill Museum, reveals Churchill's scientific mind ... and his belief that other planets could almost certainly harbor life.
Titled "Are We Alone in the Universe?", the essay was written by Churchill in 1939, the year before he became prime minister, and was originally intended for newspaper publication. A revised typewritten copy wound up in the hands of Churchill's publisher in the 1950s, and the publisher's wife later turned it over to the museum. Last year, the museum's current director passed it on to astrophysicist Mario Livo, who recently wrote about it for Nature.
"Churchill's reasoning mirrors many modern arguments in astrobiology. 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," Livo said.
As the essay progressed, Churchill pondered the importance of water to living organisms, explored the possibility of other planets existing in what we now call the "Habitable Zone," questioned contemporary theories of how planets form and predicted future exploration of the moon. Finally, he arrived at this now-common assertion:
“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."
The essay, Livo writes, is a fascinating example of how Churchill viewed scientific exploration and achievement, but also how he viewed science "in the context of human values."
"Particularly given today's political landscape, elected leaders should heed Churchill's example: appoint permanent science advisers and make good use of them," Livo said.
If you've got time, head over and read Livo's full analysis. It's a great look at another side of a legend.