Winston Churchill is perhaps best known as the cigar-chomping prime minister who led Britain successfully through World War II, becoming one of the most influential politicians of the 20th century along the way. He was also a brilliant historian and writer, and even won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. But it may surprise you to learn that Churchill was also a bona fide science geek who penned articles for newspapers and magazines about evolution, cell biology and even...extraterrestrial life? In a lost 1939 essay recently rediscovered in some dusty museum archives, Churchill wrote about an all-too familiar question that was apparently pressing on his mind.
It was October 1939, weeks after Britain declared war on Germany. Recently restored to his old post as first lord of the British Admiralty, Winston Churchill sent off his latest popular science article to his publisher. It may have been intended for London’s “News of the World” Sunday newspaper.
In the late 1950s—after guiding the country through World War II, losing his job as prime minister to the Labour Party and regaining it from 1951-55—Churchill returned to the unpublished essay. He made a few minor typographical changes and refined the title to reflect more current scientific terminology, changing it from “Are We Alone in Space?” to “Are We Alone in the Universe?” Churchill returned to the unpublished essay while on vacation in the South of France at the villa of his publisher, Emery Reves.
After Reves died in the 1980s, his wife passed the manuscript along to the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, where Churchill had delivered his famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946. There the essay remained until last year, when the museum’s new director, Timothy Riley, stumbled on it in the archives. The museum invited the Israeli astrophysicist Mario Livio to review it, and Livio published his analysis this week in the journal Nature.
Churchill worked through his thought process about the possibility of extraterrestrial life “like a scientist,” according to Livio. After first defining what life is, he listed the requirements for it to exist (including, most importantly, liquid water). He moved on from there to speculate about the possibility of life existing in other solar systems.
In considering how likely it was that stars other than the sun could host Earth-like planets, Churchill anticipated the discovery of exoplanets by more than 50 years. He also wrote about what scientists today call the “habitable” or “Goldilocks” zone around a star, where it is neither too hot nor too cold for life to flourish.
Churchill wasn’t above throwing a little shade at the current situation in world politics (as eloquently as possible, of course). “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.”
Aliens would have been on many people’s minds when Churchill wrote the recently unearthed essay. Just one year earlier, some who listened to Orson Welles’ radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” panicked, thinking the news of an invasion from Mars was genuine. (Churchill was friends with Wells, and a particular fan of his book “The Time Machine.”)
This wasn’t the only time Churchill showed his hand when it came to his fascination with possible alien life. One of his earlier science articles, published in 1924, was called “Are There Men on the Moon?” And British intelligence records released in 2010 showed that the prime minister ordered that a reported UFO sighting by the Royal Air Force during World War II be kept secret in order to avoid “mass panic.”
Sir Winston certainly wasn’t alone in his preoccupation with extraterrestrials, either, even among prominent 20th-century world leaders. Former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both claimed to have seen UFOs, while Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared that “The phenomenon of UFOs does exist, and it must be treated seriously.
Soon after Thomas Riley discovered the essay in the Churchill Museum’s archives, two other versions of it resurfaced. The original draft is housed at the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Due to copyright issues, the essay itself cannot currently be published, but the Churchill Museum is hoping to resolve this situation soon.