Churchill was an alien life dis­ci­ple

The Press - - World -

BRI­TAIN: The type­writ­ten es­say con­tains pre­dic­tions about the search for ex­tra-ter­res­trial in­tel­li­gence that were decades ahead of their time – the sort of in­sights one might ex­pect from Isaac Asi­mov or Arthur C Clarke.

Yet it was writ­ten not by a lead­ing as­tronomer or any of the lu­mi­nar­ies of sci­ence fic­tion, but by a British prime min­is­ter pre­oc­cu­pied with cam­paign­ing for of­fice and win­ning World War II.

In spite of th­ese pass­ing dis­trac­tions, Win­ston Churchill ap­pears to have an­tic­i­pated ques­tions about alien life that sci­en­tists would not even think to ask un­til as late as the 1990s.

The pre­vi­ously un­known man­u­script, which Churchill be­gan writ­ing on the eve of war and fin­ished in the late 1950s, was dis­cov­ered by chance as Ti­mothy Ri­ley, di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Na­tional Churchill Mu­seum in Ful­ton, Mis­souri, was leaf­ing through a cache of pa­pers last year. It was given the title Are We Alone in the Uni­verse? but does not ap­pear to have seen the light of day un­til now.

Mario Livio, the Is­raeli as­tro­physi­cist who an­nounced the find yes­ter­day, hailed it as a pre­scient mas­ter­piece of sci­ence jour­nal­ism.

Al­though the full text can­not yet be re­leased be­cause of copy­right is­sues, the ex­tracts re­veal that Churchill in­ferred the ex­is­tence of plan­ets or­bit­ing other stars, even though this was not con­firmed un­til 1992.

‘‘I am not suf­fi­ciently con­ceited,’’ he wrote, ‘‘to think that my sun is the only one with a fam­ily of plan­ets.’’

He also de­scribes some­thing much like what is to­day known as the Goldilocks zone, the nar­row band of space around a star where plan­ets will be warm enough to sup­port life but not so hot that the oceans boil. Life, Churchill wrote, could only ex­ist ‘‘be­tween a few de­grees of frost and the boil­ing point of wa­ter’’.

Livio be­lieves Churchill be­gan work­ing on the es­say, pos­si­bly with the in­ten­tion of pub­lish­ing it in the now-de­funct News of the World news­pa­per, a few months af­ter a ra­dio adap­ta­tion of H G Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds had prompted ‘‘Mars fever’’ in the world’s press.

Pos­si­bly with help from his friend and ad­viser, the physi­cist Frederick Lin­de­mann, he came up with the rudi­ments of the Drake equa­tion, which was first pub­lished in 1961 and still in­forms many at­tempts to cal­cu­late the prob­a­bil­ity of find­ing aliens.

Churchill es­ti­mated that a large frac­tion of dis­tant worlds ‘‘will be the right size to keep on their sur­face wa­ter and pos­si­bly an at­mos­phere of some sort’’, while some of those would be ‘‘at a proper dis­tance from their par­ent sun to main­tain a suit­able tem­per­a­ture’’.

He con­cluded: ‘‘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.’’ – The Times

PHOTO: REUTERS

An es­say Win­ston Churchill started writ­ing just be­fore World War II had sharp in­sights about the pos­si­bil­ity of life on other worlds.

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