Winston Churchill and E.T.

By Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer

photo credit: Yousef Karsh

It was 1939, and the storm of history’s greatest conflict was gathering on the European continent.

The situation for Britain was ominous.  But even in those terrible, turbulent times, Winston Churchill took the opportunity to speculate on the possibility of intelligent beings elsewhere in the cosmos, and commit his ideas to paper.  (He was a prodigious scribe, averaging several thousand words a day over the course of his life.)  His largely unknown essay on this subject has been recently reviewed by astrophysicist Mario Livio, and reported in the February 16 issue of the journal Nature.

Given Churchill’s broad interests and catholic knowledge, it’s not surprising that he thought about the idea of life in space, although one might argue that his timing was influenced by the famed radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds broadcast the year before.  But the remarkable thing is not that Churchill wrote about the possibilities for extraterrestrial biology, but that he thought about the subject in a way very similar to contemporary researchers.

The context of his ruminations was shaped by the work of astronomer Edwin Hubble and others, who had just shown that the universe was far larger than previously believed.  There were not only hundreds of billions of stars populating the galaxy, but vast numbers of other galaxies.

But were there also planets, the presumed habitats for life?  In Churchill’s time, the received wisdom on planet formation was the 1905 Chamberlin-Moulton theory.  It postulated that solar systems were the result of close interactions between two stars.  Since stars seldom get close to one another, this theory implied that planets would be extraordinarily rare. 

This might have dissuaded a lesser thinker from believing that the heavens could have many cool worlds on which to host biology.  But Churchill had a daring mind, and considered that the Chamberlin-Moulton idea might be wrong (and in fact, it is).  He then proceeded to argue in a stunningly modern way that the number of planets spangling the heavens could be almost inconceivably large, and that modesty alone would suggest that Earth is not the only place where intelligent life might exist.

In addition, Churchill – while not trained in science – saw its benefits, both in the short and long term, and promoted wartime research in radio and computing.  One consequence was that when the conflict was over, the British expertise in radar spurred the development of radio astronomy, a discipline that is a direct ancestor to today’s SETI experiments.  This celebrated politician not only made cogent arguments for why someone might be out there, but was enlightened enough to encourage the science that eventually made a search for such beings possible. 

To say that Churchill was a man ahead of his time is to understate his thinking.  He not only envisioned what the future might bring, but had the foresight to undertake the research that could take us there.

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