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Lost Winston Churchill essay reveals his thoughts on alien life

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Are we alone in the Universe?

Winston Churchill in 1941
Wikimedia Commons

A newly discovered essay by Winston Churchill shows that the British statesman gave a lot of thought to the existential question that has inspired years of scientific research and blockbuster movies: are we alone in the Universe? The essay was drafted in the 1930s, but unearthed in a museum in Missouri last year. Astrophysicist Mario Livio, who was the first scientist to analyze the article, says it shows that the statesman was very up-to-date with the scientific research of his time. Churchill’s interest for science should serve as an example to today’s politicians, Livio writes in a comment published today in Nature.

Churchill, who’s best remembered for his leadership during World War II, was known to have an interest in science, Livio writes. In the 1920s and ‘30s, he wrote several popular-science articles about cells, evolution, and nuclear fusion. He regularly met with scientists, favoring the development of radar and Britain’s nuclear program during the war. And in the 1940s, he became the first prime minister to appoint a science advisor, the physicist Frederick Lindemann.

However, Livio was “stunned” when he first saw the unpublished, 11-page essay on the existence of alien life, he tells The Verge. The astrophysicist was visiting Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, for a talk last year, when he was approached by Timothy Riley, the director of Fulton’s US National Churchill Museum. Riley showed him the essay, titled “Are We Alone in the Universe?”

“In my research work, I actually am very very interested in this particular question,” Livio says. “I was very intrigued to see what this great statesperson had to say about this.”

Churchill drafted the essay in 1939, when Europe was on the brink of war, and revisited it in the late 1950s. He probably intended to publish it in the London newspaper News of the World, Livio says. The wife of Emery Reves, Churchill’s publisher, donated the artifact to the Fulton museum in the 1980s, and Riley rediscovered it in the museum collection last year. (Livio couldn’t provide The Verge with a copy of the article because of copyright issues.)

In the essay, Churchill reasons that we can’t possibly be alone in the Universe — and that many other Suns will likely have many other planets that could harbor life. Because of how enormously distant these extrasolar planets are, we may never know if they “house living creatures, or even plants,” Churchill concludes. He wrote this decades before exoplanets were discovered in the 1990s; hundreds have since been detected.

What’s impressive about the essay is the way Churchill approaches the existential and scientific question of whether life exists on other planets, Livio says. Churchill’s reasoning mirrors extremely well the way scientists think about this problem today. The British leader also talks about several theories that still guide the search for alien life, Livio says. For example, he notes that water is the key ingredient for life on Earth, and so finding water on other planets could mean finding life there. Churchill also notes that life can only survive in regions “between a few degrees of frost and the boiling point of water” — what today we call the habitable zone, the region around a star that is neither too hot or too cold, so that liquid water may exist on the planet’s surface.

“After reading [the essay], I was even more impressed with the way his thought process works and his line of reasoning,” Livio says. “He really thought about this in the same way I would think about this today.”

Churchill’s “scientific thinking” and his deep interest for science should serve as an example to today’s politicians, Livio says. “I must say that I was filled with this sort of nostalgia when reading this,” he says. The US has just elected a President who’s arguably anti-science. Donald Trump has legitimized debunked theories that vaccines cause autism and climate change is a hoax, but science today is more important than ever, Livio says.

“Science permeates everything we do today,” he says. And the major problems the world is facing — whether it’s climate change, famine, or disease — need scientists to help solve them. “What I would have liked to see is the high-ranking politicians ... take example and employ science advisors and really use them in the best way,” Livio says. “This scientific input is absolutely necessary.”