Extraterrestrial Life

Winston Churchill Once Wrote A Prescient Essay About Alien Life

In 2016, when searching through a collection of Winston Churchill's writings, academics stumbled upon an 11-page essay the British leader had written entitled "Are We Alone In The Universe?" What he wrote was astonishingly perceptive, not only for a politician, but for any thinker in 1939.

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A Scientifically Literate Leader

Before you wonder what a politician was doing writing about aliens when the world was at the brink of WWII, some context is needed: Churchill was a prolific writer, and a champion of science. He was the first prime minister to appoint a science adviser, and met regularly with scientists to talk about their work and inform his decisions. Decades earlier, he penned essays about evolution, biology, and futurism for various publications.

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In an article for the journal Nature, astrophysicist Mario Livio wrote about one story that "captures his attitude" about science and governing: While talking about using statistics to fight German U-boats, "Air Chief Marshal Arthur 'Bomber' Harris complained, 'Are we fighting this war with weapons or slide rules?' Churchill replied, 'Let's try the slide rule.'"

Painting of Churchill in RAF uniform

Predictions Ahead Of Their Time

He begins his essay pointing out that "all living things of the type we know require water," and although we can't say for certain that other liquids are possible sources of life, "nothing in our present knowledge entitles us to make such an assumption." One point for Churchill: nearly 80 years later, we still use the presence of water as a sign that life is possible on another planet.

After concluding that, due to their favorable conditions, Mars and Venus are the only other planets in our Solar System that could harbor life, he ventures beyond, writing "the sun is merely one star in our galaxy, which contains several thousand millions of others...I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets." Churchill goes on to say that a sizeable portion of planets outside our solar system "will be the right size to keep on their surface water and possibly an atmosphere of some sort" and some will even be "at the proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature." That might not seem surprising until you remember that Churchill, a non-scientist, wrote this more than 20 years before the Drake Equation—which laid out the probability of finding life on other planets—and decades more before the first exoplanet was ever discovered.

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In a world where leaders seem to be increasingly turning away from science, Churchill's words are a good reminder of how science and politics can work together. As he wrote later in 1958, "It is only by leading mankind in the discovery of new worlds of science and engineering that we shall hold our position and continue to earn our livelihood."

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Written by Ashley Hamer March 3, 2017

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