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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

‘Are We Alone in the Universe?’ Churchill’s Lost Essay on Alien Life Uncovered

This is a pretty courageous thing for a world leader to write at a time
when talk of extraterrestrial life would bring much mirth and criticism.
But then, Churchill was never afraid of controversy.

Winston Churchill © Pigiste / AFP

A newly discovered piece written by Winston Churchill, as the world stood on the brink of World War II, reveals the former British Prime Minister turned his thoughts to the possibility of alien life.

The eleven-page essay entitled ‘Are we alone in the universe’ was drafted on the eve of World War II in 1939 and updated in the '50s but remained undiscovered in the US National Churchill Museum archives until recently.

Britain's wartime leader, who won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 and was also a proponent of science, reflected in the article on the likelihood of extraterrestrial life, with unusual foresight.

He discussed the possible existence of exoplanets decades before they were discovered, and predicted humans would travel to the moon and Mars.

The timely, rediscovered article, which is believed to have been intended for publication in London's News of the World, was found by Timothy Riley, Director of the US National Churchill Museum and shared with astrophysicist Mario Livio for expert analysis.

“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 the journal Nature, describing Churchill’s reasoning as nuanced and comparable with modern arguments in astrobiology.

Churchill’s open-minded theories on the search for extraterrestrial life pre-empted later astronomical discoveries including habitable zones and exoplanets.

“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 wrote in the piece.

Churchill thought in-depth about ‘habitable zones’ before it became a recognizable term, musing that life could only survive “between a few degrees of frost and the boiling point of water.”

He also considered 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.

Taking these factors into account, the British statesman concluded that Mars and Venus are the only places in the Solar System other than Earth that could harbor life.

“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.

It’s interesting to bear in mind that Churchill began the essay shortly after Orson Welles dramatization of HG Wells' The War of the Worlds was broadcast on US radio prompting ‘Mars fever’ in the media.

Churchill also weighed up the idea that other stars host planets reasoning “the sun is merely one star in our galaxy, which contains several thousand millions of others”. He considered a now ruled out theory put forward by astrophysicist James Jeans in 1917 that planets are formed from the gas that is torn off a star when another star passes close to it.

“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?”

“I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets.”

He concluded a large number of extrasolar planets “will be the right size to keep on their surface water and possibly an atmosphere of some sort” and some will be “at the proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature,” decades before thousands of exoplanets were discovered in the 1990s.

“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 finishes the essay.

Livio noted that Churchill contemplated scientific questions in the context of human values and that his essay was a testament to the importance he put on science and technology for societal development.

Churchill entered Parliament as an MP in 1901