Take us to your leader. A newly-discovered typewritten essay written by former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill appears to show how he anticipated later findings about the conditions required for the existence of alien life in other galaxies.
The unpublished 11-page essay, entitled ‘Are We Alone in the Universe?’, was penned by Sir Winston in 1939, a year before he became Britain’s wartime leader. According to recent newspaper reports, the essay – which has excited Churchill scholars and other experts – recently resurfaced when it was found in a box at the American National Churchill Museum at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. The essay was probably intended as an article for the British Sunday newspaper The News of the World (which now no longer exists, after closing in light of the telephone hacking scandal).
The revelation brings an important new dimension to our historical knowledge of Churchill and his career. In particular, what has surprised but also delighted various commentators (including writers on the history of science) is the extent to which Churchill was clearly fascinated with science and kept himself very up-to-date with the latest findings in physics and biology. Dr. Mario Livio, a prominent astrophysicist (and probably the first scientist to read the essay since it was originally drafted) announced the unique find in the journal Nature on February 15th, and praised the manuscript as a masterpiece of scientific journalism: ‘Asimov wrote about such topics and primarily about such topics. But Churchill was a statesman – and perhaps the greatest statesman of the 20th century. I find it astonishing that he would have been so profoundly interested in these problems’.
Timothy Riley, director of the National Churchill Museum, told the UK’s Guardian newspaper: ‘The first time I saw it, I thought the combination of Churchill and such a big question had to be a fascinating read, and that proved to be right’. He added: ‘It is completely fitting that Churchill would ask such a question. He was keenly interested in science and technological advancement, and supported it throughout his long career’.
Riley also explained that the Museum hoped to make the essay fully available to the public as soon as possible. The full text cannot be made available yet because of copyright issues, but some released extracts from the article indicate that Churchill was confident that there were planets orbiting other stars that could also support life. Churchill wrote: ‘I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets’.
Churchill also described the conditions on planets that could support life, where such planets would be ‘at a proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature’ and also have liquid water (an essential ingredient for life). There is also some evidence that the famous Conservative politician returned back to the essay in the 1950s and revised part of it while on holiday in the south of France.
Historians and biographers of Churchill might be less surprised about these latest revelations. As a number of Churchill experts have pointed out, Churchill showed a keen interest in science and technology from an early age, and when he was stationed in India with the British Army, there is evidence that he read Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking work On the Origin of Species (1859). Moreover, in the Edwardian period, while rising rapidly in the world of politics, the ambitious Churchill still maintained his interest in biology, which (as the historian Clive Ponting noted in his biography Churchill in 1994) even extended to the so-called science of eugenics. He was one of the sponsors of the First International Eugenics Conference in July, 1912, held in London.
Similarly, in the First World War, Churchill was a strong advocate of new technologies and inventions as a way of unlocking the military stalemate on the Western Front (including, famously, the tank). In the interwar period, he also contributed many short articles and pieces of journalism to newspapers and magazines on a wide range of science-related subjects, including evolution, nuclear fusion and new technological discoveries. There is also some tantalising evidence that he was big fan of the work of the science-fiction writer H.G. Wells, and was possibly inspired to write about life on other worlds in light of the infamous US radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds (narrated by Orson Welles). The controversial broadcast, transmitted in 1938, had created temporary panic in some parts of America about an alien invasion, and subsequently caused quite a debate in popular newspapers about the possibility of life on other worlds.
In the Second World War, as the new Prime Minister, Churchill was also a strong advocate of employing science as an essential aid in the war effort, appointing some leading researchers and inventors as his scientific advisers in Whitehall, including the physicist R.V. Jones, who was MI6’s principal scientific officer. Significantly, in mid-1941, Churchill also gave the go-ahead for Britain to start developing a new super-weapon – the atomic bomb. When the USA entered the war in December, 1941, Churchill offered British scientific expertise to the Americans, and the two countries then worked very closely together on what became the top-secret Manhattan Project (the American project to build atomic weapons).
When he returned as Prime Minister in 1951, Churchill privately applauded the secret decision taken by the previous PM, Labour’s Clement Attlee, to develop an independent British atomic weapon capability. As something of a Cold War ‘warrior’, Churchill believed it was vital for Britain to show it was still a Great Power, and possession of a nuclear deterrent (as far as he was concerned) was an important way of maintaining such a status in the post-war world.
On the other hand, recent research by the historian Kevin Ruane (Churchill and the Bomb in War and Cold War, published in 2016), has suggested that, with the development of the more powerful hydrogen bomb, Churchill’s faith in new technologies took a less optimistic direction. In fact, tests of the new H-Bomb by both the USA and the USSR deeply worried Churchill, and persuaded him in the final year of his premiership that it had become essential for mankind to avoid any new conflict: in his view, political leaders now needed to work for East-West reconciliation in order to avoid the catastrophe of a thermo-nuclear war wiping out life across much of planet Earth.
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(All images: WikiMedia Commons)