by INTERSEKT | 22/02/2017 9:40 am
(BBC) – A newly unearthed essay by Winston Churchill reveals he was open to the possibility of life on other planets. By Paul Rincon
In 1939, the year World War Two broke out, Churchill penned a popular science article in which he mused about the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life.
The 11-page typed draft, probably intended for a newspaper, was updated in the 1950s but never published.
In the 1980s, the essay was passed to a US museum, where it sat until its rediscovery last year.
The document was uncovered in the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, by the institution’s new director Timothy Riley. Mr Riley then passed it to the Israeli astrophysicist and author Mario Livio who describes the contents in the latest issue of Nature journal.
Churchill’s interest in science is well-known: he was the first British prime minister to employ a science adviser, Frederick Lindemann, and met regularly with scientists such as Sir Bernard Lovell, a pioneer of radio astronomy.
This documented engagement with the scientific community was partly related to the war effort, but he is credited with funding UK laboratories, telescopes and technology development that spawned post-war discoveries in fields from molecular genetics to X-ray crystallography.
Despite this background, Dr Livio described the discovery of the essay as a “great surprise”.
He told the BBC’s Inside Science programme: “[Mr Riley] said, ‘I would like you to take a look at something.’ He gave me a copy of this essay by Churchill. I saw the title, Are We Alone in the Universe? and I said, ‘What? Churchill wrote about something like this?'”
Dr Livio says the wartime leader reasoned like a scientist about the likelihood of life on other planets.
Churchill’s thinking mirrors many modern arguments in astrobiology – the study of the potential for life on other planets. In his essay, the former prime minister builds on the Copernican Principle – the idea that human life on Earth shouldn’t be unique given the vastness of the Universe.
Churchill defined life as the ability to “breed and multiply” and noted the vital importance of liquid water, explaining: “all living things of the type we know require [it].”
More than 50 years before the discovery of exoplanets, he considered the likelihood that other stars would host planets, concluding that a large fraction of these distant worlds “will be the right size to keep on their surface water and possibly an atmosphere of some sort”. He also surmised that some would be “at the proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature”.
Churchill also outlined what scientists now describe as the “habitable” or “Goldilocks” zone – the narrow region around a star where it is neither too hot nor too cold for life.
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