One of Britain’s most influential and respected statesmen was also a science buff who mused about the existence of extraterrestrial life in his spare time, a newly unearthed document reveals.
Former prime minister Winston Churchill, who led his country through the Second World War and then again through the post-war period, began penning an 11-page article titled “Are We Alone in the Universe?” in 1939 and then updated it in the late 1950s after his second tenure at 10 Downing St.
The manuscript is filled with remarkable insights, some decades ahead of their time.
They include one of the first suggestions of a habitable zone (although he didn’t use those words) just the right distance from a star to be capable of sustaining life, and the idea that given the immense number of stars in the universe, Earth is unlikely a unique planet.
“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 writes.
The manuscript was effectively forgotten until 2016, when the new director of the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Mo., found it, and then passed it along to Israeli astrophysicist and author Mario Livio.
Livio, fascinated by Churchill’s insights, wrote an article about the work that was published earlier this week in the journal Nature.
In addition to speculating about alien life and the ideal conditions required for it to evolve (including temperature, atmosphere and water), the former prime minister also accurately predicted that humans would someday venture beyond Earth’s orbit.
“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,” Churchill wrote.
Years after he last updated his article, Neil Armstrong would fulfill part of that prophecy when he stepped onto the surface of the moon. A manned mission to Mars is now in the works.
In his article, Livio notes that Churchill “was likely to have been informed by conversations with his friend and later adviser, the physicist Frederick Lindemann.”
Churchill was the first British leader to hire a science adviser in an official capacity, and fostered a “science-friendly environment” in government that led to numerous discoveries in the decades that followed, Livio says.
“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,” he writes of Churchill.
Churchill’s work is set to be unveiled this week at the National Churchill Museum. Visitors will be able to view several of its 11 pages.