Museum Finds Winston Churchill’s Lost Essay on Extraterrestrial Life

J. Russel and Sons via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
J. Russel and Sons via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / J. Russel and Sons via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The director of a museum in Fulton, Missouri has unearthed an unpublished essay by Winston Churchill. The essay, which muses on the nature of the cosmos and the probability of life on other planets, is described this week in the journal Nature.

Churchill’s lifelong love of science was evident in his personal life and political career. He was eminently curious, meeting regularly with researchers and supporting the development of technologies like radar, and later relied on input from physicist Frederick Lindemann, whom Churchill appointed to be the first science advisor to a prime minister.

Churchill first drafted his 11-page essay “Are We Alone in the Universe” in 1939—shortly after Orson Welles’s infamous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which generated "Mars fever," Livio writes. Astrophysicist Mario Livio, author of the Nature article, speculates that Churchill may have intended his piece to appear in the News of the World Sunday paper. But England declared war on Germany, and the essay languished. Churchill later left a revised version of the essay with his publisher Emery Reves, but for unknown reasons, the piece never saw the light of day.

After Reves’s death, the manuscript was donated to Fulton’s U.S. National Churchill Museum. It sat there until last year, when new director Timothy Riley spotted it in the archives.

The essay is pure Churchill: expansive, informed, philosophical, and just a little bit cranky. Churchill’s outlining of the arguments for and against the existence of extraterrestrial life demonstrates his impressive familiarity with the science of the time and at moments seems almost prescient. He describes how water is necessary for life, and the probability of finding water, oxygen, and safe temperatures outside our own planet. He considers the possibility of worlds beyond our own—“I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets”—and that those other worlds might indeed support organisms.

He wrote that travel within our solar system could be possible one day, “possibly even in the not very distant future,” but acknowledges the difficulty in going any farther. But even if we can’t get to far-off planets, he writes, we should allow for the chance that they have inhabitants of their own, and that those inhabitants might just be better than us.

“I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures,” he wrote, “or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”