Winston Churchill thought deeply about the possibility of aliens and made a string of eerie predictions, according to a newly unearthed essay.
With Europe on the brink of war, Britain’s future wartime prime minister mused at length on whether humanity is alone in the universe, and made a string of predictions about the possibility of finding alien life that turned out to be true.
The 11-page article called Are We Alone in the Universe?, perhaps written for publication in a newspaper, explores how we might come into contact with alien life.
Pre-empting discoveries of extra-solar planets by more than five decades, he defines what scientists later called the “habitable” or “Goldilocks” zone – the narrow orbital region where a planet is not too hot or too cold but “just right” to support life.
(An extra-solar planet, also called an exoplanet, is one that orbits a star other than our own sun.)
Correctly, Churchill also believed large numbers of stars could have families of planets.
He concluded that many of them “will be the right size to keep on their surface water and possibly an atmosphere of some sort” and some would be “at the proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature”.
Those are still the requirements for life that scientists look for in planets around the universe. Planets that include them are the best candidates for finding aliens.
The article was written soon after Orson Welles broadcast his radio dramatisation of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds in 1938.
That broadcast – possibly the forerunner of fake news because it was believed to be real by many who heard it – ignited panic that the US had been attacked by Martians.
It kindled worldwide interest in the hunt for aliens.
Lending credence to that theory, Churchill wrote that only Mars and Venus could conceivably harbour life, because of their makeup.
Though scientists have not found evidence for life on the red planet, some readings have suggested that it could. It is thought life might have thrived on the planet many moons ago.
With a nod to the grim events unfolding in Europe, Churchill wrote:
“I for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilisation 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.”
The essay has been hidden away at the US National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, since the 1980s.
It was discovered by museum’s new director, Timothy Riley, who passed it on to the Israeli astrophysicist, author and former Hubble Space Telescope scientist Mario Livio.
Churchill was well-known to be interested in science. But Livio wrote in the journal Nature this week that finding the document was a “great surprise”.
The predictions are just one of Churchill’s accurate forecasts.
In 1931, for instance, he wrote a piece called Fifty Years Hence that accurately predicted the invention of hydrogen-fuelled nuclear fusion power – a development that would come soon after and cause its own revolution.
That was just one of many popular science pieces that he wrote throughout the 1920s and 30s, exploring scientific topics as diverse as evolution and cells.