Winston Churchill is best known as a wartime leader, one of the most influential politicians of the twentieth century, a clear-eyed historian and an eloquent orator. He was also passionate about science and technology.
Aged 22, while stationed with the British Army in India in 1896, he read Darwin's On the Origin of Species and a primer on physics. In the 1920s and 1930s, he wrote popular-science essays on topics such as evolution and cells in newspapers and magazines. In a 1931 article in The Strand Magazine entitled 'Fifty Years Hence'1, he described fusion power: “If the hydrogen atoms in a pound of water could be prevailed upon to combine together and form helium, they would suffice to drive a thousand-horsepower engine for a whole year.” His writing was likely to have been informed by conversations with his friend and later adviser, the physicist Frederick Lindemann.
Noah Baker finds out about Winston Churchill’s close relationship with science.
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During the Second World War, Churchill supported the development of radar and Britain's nuclear programme. He met regularly with scientists such as Bernard Lovell, the father of radio astronomy. An exchange about the use of statistics to fight German U-boats captures his attitude. Air Chief Marshal Arthur 'Bomber' Harris complained, “Are we fighting this war with weapons or slide rules?” Churchill replied, “Let's try the slide rule.”2
He was the first prime minister to employ a science adviser, hiring Lindemann in the early 1940s. The science-friendly environment that Churchill created in the United Kingdom through government funding of laboratories, telescopes and technology development spawned post-war discoveries and inventions in fields from molecular genetics to X-ray crystallography.
Despite all this, it was a great surprise last year, while I was on a visit to the US National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, when the director Timothy Riley thrust a typewritten essay by Churchill into my hands. In the 11-page article, 'Are We Alone in the Universe?', he muses presciently about the search for extraterrestrial life.
He penned the first draft, perhaps for London's News of the World Sunday newspaper, in 1939 — when Europe was on the brink of war. He revised it lightly in the late 1950s while staying in the south of France at the villa of his publisher, Emery Reves. For example, he changed the title from 'Are We Alone in Space?' to 'Are We Alone in the Universe?' to reflect changes in scientific understanding and terminology. Wendy Reves, the publisher's wife, passed the manuscript to the US National Churchill Museum archives in the 1980s.
Riley, who became director of the museum in May 2016, has just rediscovered it. To the best of Riley's knowledge, the essay remained in the Reves's private collection and has never been published or subjected to scientific or academic scrutiny. Imagine my thrill that I may be the first scientist to examine this essay.
Here I outline Churchill's thinking. At a time when a number of today's politicians shun science, I find it moving to recall a leader who engaged with it so profoundly.
Churchill's reasoning mirrors many modern arguments in astrobiology. In essence, he builds on the framework of the 'Copernican Principle' — the idea that, given the vastness of the Universe, it is hard to believe that humans on Earth represent something unique. He starts by defining the most important characteristic of life — in his view, the ability to “breed and multiply”. After noting that some viruses can be crystallized, making them hard to categorize, he decides to concentrate on “comparatively highly-organised life”, presumably multicellular life.
His first point is that “all living things of the type we know require water”. Bodies and cells are largely composed of it, he notes. Other liquids cannot be ruled out but “nothing in our present knowledge entitles us to make such an assumption”. The presence of water in liquid form still guides our searches for extraterrestrial life: on Mars, on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter or on extrasolar planets (beyond our Solar System). As well as being essential for the emergence of life on Earth, water is abundant in the cosmos. This wonderfully universal solvent — almost every substance can dissolve in it — can transport such chemicals as phosphates into and out of cells.
Churchill then defines what is known today as the habitable zone — that narrow 'Goldilocks' region around a star that is neither too cold nor too hot, so that liquid water may exist on the surface of a rocky planet. He writes that life can survive only in regions “between a few degrees of frost and the boiling point of water”. He explains how Earth's temperature is fixed by its distance from the Sun. Churchill also considers the ability of a planet to retain its atmosphere, explaining that the hotter a gas is, the faster its molecules are moving and the more easily they can escape. Consequently, stronger gravity is necessary to trap gas on a planet in the long term.
Taking all these elements together, he concludes that Mars and Venus are the only places in the Solar System other than Earth that could harbour life. He eliminates the outer planets (too cold); Mercury (too hot on the sunny side and too cold on the other); and the Moon and asteroids (their gravities are too weak to trap atmospheres).
Churchill began his essay not long after the 1938 US broadcast of the radio drama The War of The Worlds (an adaptation of H. G. Wells's 1898 story) had generated 'Mars fever' in the media. Speculation over the existence of life on the red planet had been going on since the late nineteenth century. In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli described seeing linear marks on Mars (canali; mistranslated as canals) that were thought to be constructed by some civilization. These turned out to be optical illusions but the idea of Martians stuck. Science-fiction stories abounded, culminating with Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (Doubleday, 1950), published in the United Kingdom as The Silver Locusts (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1951).
Churchill's essay next assesses the probability that other stars host planets. He reasons that “the sun is merely one star in our galaxy, which contains several thousand millions of others”. Churchill assumes that planets are formed from the gas that is torn off a star when another star passes close to it — a model suggested by astrophysicist James Jeans in 1917, which has since been ruled out. He infers that, because such close encounters are rare, “our sun may be indeed exceptional, and possibly unique”.
Now Churchill shines. With the healthy scepticism of a scientist, he writes: “But this speculation depends upon the hypothesis that planets were formed in this way. Perhaps they were not. We know there are millions of double stars, and if they could be formed, why not planetary systems?”
Indeed, the present-day theory of planet formation — the build up of a rocky planet's core by the accretion of many small bodies — is very different from Jeans's. Churchill writes: “I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets.”
Thus, he concludes, a large fraction of extrasolar planets “will be the right size to keep on their surface water and possibly an atmosphere of some sort” and some will be “at the proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature”.
This was decades before the discoveries of thousands of extrasolar planets began in the 1990s, and years before astronomer Frank Drake presented his probabilistic argument for the rarity of communicating civilizations in the cosmos in 1961. Extrapolating data from the Kepler Space Observatory suggests that the Milky Way probably contains more than a billion Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of stars that are the size of the Sun or smaller3.
Reflecting on the enormous distances involved, Churchill concludes that we may never know whether such planets “house living creatures, or even plants”.
Churchill sees great opportunity for exploration in the Solar System. “One day, possibly even in the not very distant future, it may be possible to travel to the moon, or even to Venus or Mars,” he writes. By contrast, he notes, interstellar travel and communication are intrinsically difficult. He points out that it would take light some five years to travel even to the nearest star and back, adding that the nearest large spiral galaxy to the Milky Way (Andromeda — one of the “spiral nebulae”, as he calls them) is more than several hundred thousand times as far away as the nearest stars.
The essay finishes eagerly: “with hundreds of thousands of nebulae, each containing thousands of millions of suns, the odds are enormous that there must be immense numbers which possess planets whose circumstances would not render life impossible.” Here Churchill shows that he was familiar with the findings of astronomer Edwin Hubble in the late 1920s and early 1930s, who discovered that there are many galaxies beyond the Milky Way (about 2 trillion, according to a recent estimate4).
Taking a bleaker turn that reflects his times, Churchill adds: “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, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”
Almost 80 years later, the question that obsessed Churchill is one of the hottest topics of scientific research. Searches for signs of subsurface life on Mars are ongoing. Simulations of Venus's climate hint that it may once have been habitable5. Astronomers believe that, in a few decades, we will discover some biological signatures of present or past life in the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, or at least be able to constrain its rarity6.
Churchill's essay is testament to how he saw the fruits of science and technology as essential for society's development. When he helped to establish Churchill College at the University of Cambridge, UK, in 1958, he wrote7: “It is only by leading mankind in the discovery of new worlds of science and engineering that we shall hold our position and continue to earn our livelihood.”
Yet he was also concerned that without understanding the humanities, scientists might operate in a moral vacuum. “We need scientists in the world but not a world of scientists,” he said8. In order for science to be “the servant and not the master of man”, he felt that appropriate policies that drew on humanistic values must be in place. As he put it in a 1949 address to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's convocation: “If, with all the resources of modern science, we find ourselves unable to avert world famine, we shall all be to blame.”
Churchill was a science enthusiast and advocate, but he also contemplated important scientific questions in the context of human values. Particularly given today's political landscape, elected leaders should heed Churchill's example: appoint permanent science advisers and make good use of them.
Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty
Winston Churchill at his desk in 1939: a prolific writer, he covered scientific topics as diverse as evolution and fusion power.
An image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the Martian surface, where the search for water is ongoing.
“Churchill sees great opportunity for exploration in the Solar System.”
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On December 16, the New York Times publishedtwo stories that read almost like science fiction. For at least five years, the Defense Department housed a $22-million, clandestine program to investigate UFOs. Military pilots had sent in reports of objects they observed that moved in unfamiliar ways; the mission of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, as it was called, was to investigate those claims to see if there was truly something otherworldly behind those sightings.
It’s unclear just how many reports pilots had filed to the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, but people who have come forward about the program have made it clear that there would have been a lot more reports filed if it hadn’t been for one thing: stigma. “The sightings were not often reported up the military’s chain of command, [former senator Harry Reid] said, because service members were afraid they would be laughed at or stigmatized,” one Times piece reads.
American culture is steeped in depictions of what would happen if sophisticated aliens visited Earth, from E.T. to Arrival to Independence Day. Some are more hackneyed than others; some are downright terrifying. But outside the clear genres of fiction, most conversations about UFOs happen online, and with varying degrees of vehemence.
Let’s face it — believing in the paranormal has become shorthand for crazy.
“60 years of folklorization and Hollywood production have, in the minds of the general public, definitely trivialized the subject. It has become a ‘standard’ consumer product,” Jean-Christophe Doré, the technical manager for UFO-SCIENCE, the French association that aims to scientifically evaluate aspects of UFO phenomena, tells Futurism.
But to some, that association might be changing. Luis Elizondo, the military official formerly in charge of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, told The New York Times’ Daily podcast:
I think we’re entering an era of actual evidence. We’ve reached a moment of critical mass of credible witnesses, and these are witnesses that are in charge of multi-million-dollar weapon platforms with, in some cases, the highest level of security clearances and in some cases they’re trained observers. When these individuals are trying to report something, ‘Hey I saw this when I was flying,’ that can be turned around and people say ‘hey look if you’re crazy, there goes your flight status.’ Or all of a sudden commander so-and-so in charge of this very elite fighter wing will no longer be taken seriously. In fact, people are going to start to judge whether or not maybe our friend here might not be a little crazy, or maybe some loose screws. That’s always a threat to these people’s career. And let’s face it, these people have to pay their taxes, they have to pay their mortgages, they have families, they’re putting their kids through school. And frankly, they’re just really good patriots and they want to do the right thing. And that stigma is pretty powerful. It stops a lot of people from reporting something maybe they would normally report.
Government officials are no longer hiding their belief that extraterrestrials might be out there. Could this be a turning point for once-fringe communities and open doors for those looking to bring scientific rigor to the quest to understand UFOs?
Most phenomena thought to be the doings of extraterrestrials are eventually explained. Take Project Blue Book, for example, the U.S. government’s program to investigate unidentified flying objects that ran from 1947 until 1969. Of the more than 12,000 reported sightings, investigators found out the real (not paranormal) story for all but 700 or so. That’s a pretty good percentage, says Joe Nickell, senior research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and paranormal investigator — about as much as you’d expect from any other scientific discipline. “A lot of these cases are never going to be solved because I don’t know what you think you saw 10 years ago. They’re not investigatable,” Nickell tells Futurism.
In other disciplines, a certain amount of uncertainty will mean that more studies are needed to definitely prove a link. But that’s not what happens with UFOs. “We spend all these years, virtually our entire lives (it’s what I’m doing with mine), and we’re solving most cases. We’re down to, say, 5 percent [that we can’t explain], and we’re arguing over the 5 percent,” Nickell says. You give someone a level-headed, thorough, earthly explanation for a particular report, and they’ll just respond, “But what about this other one?” This is, as Nickell points out, an argument from ignorance — in essence, X must be true because you can’t prove that X is false. “Why don’t we assume that, if we can explain 95 percent, that if we knew the answer, it would fall into the same category as the others?” Nickell says.
Belief in extraterrestrials is fueled by a lack of evidence, not its presence. For some people, that’s enough.
The Psychology Of Believers
More than half of Americans believe that aliens exist, according to a 2015 poll. Scientists have evaluated what distinguishes believers and non-believers and didn’t find much, the Conversation notes. But people that believe they had an abduction experience, perhaps a more extreme form of belief, are more likely to have fantasy-prone personalities, have experienced childhood trauma, or be prone to hypnosis that can make them suggestible to false memories, studies have shown. That doesn’t mean they’re lying about their experiences — they often genuinely believe they happened — but those experiences were often not quite what the individuals thought they were.
What distinguishes people who believe in Big Foot, for example, from those who believe in UFOs? It’s the suspicion of government involvement, Nickell says. More peoplebelieve in conspiracies than ever; if someone were looking to find a black-ops government program and a conspiracy to keep it secret, they’d find the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program.
“I think, for most people who believe in these UFO claims, it’s tied up with conspiracy. If you want to believe that UFOs are visiting the planet, there kind of has to be a cover up,” Rob Brotherton, a psychology professor at Barnard College and the author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, tells Futurism. And because they’re built on secrecy, it’s really hard to disprove a conspiracy theory, Brotherton points out.
Conspiracy theories about UFOs, in particular, are pretty widespread, and they have a psychological appeal that goes against the stereotype of weirdos wearing tinfoil hats. Conspiracy theories rely on the same pattern-recognition techniques we use in our daily lives, and in science as well. “Conspiracy theories make for great stories, they’re tantalizing, mysteries not yet fully solved. Your brain is like, ‘What’s up with that?’ it’s not satisfied until it knows if these things are related.”
Most of the time, people who believe in them are psychologically normal. But the belief that the government or aliens are specifically pursuing you as an individual — a me and not an us focus —might indicate a psychiatric disorder like schizophrenia, though that would be one of a number of symptoms.
“It’s not impossible [that extraterrestrials are visiting Earth],” Brotherton says. “Maybe they’re technologically advanced, maybe they are able to make it here. That’s not beyond the realms of possibility; it doesn’t defy the laws of physics necessarily. It’s worth keeping an eye out for this stuff.”
Worthy of Pursuit
Science hinges on discovery and the pursuit to understand the unknown. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, then, that some of these UFO reports are worthy of rigorous investigation. They could reveal something new about atmospheric phenomena, or physics, or, yes, possibly even extraterrestrials.
It’s not easy to separate the mysterious sightings, the ones that could yield something scientifically interesting, from the sightings that can quickly be resolved. “These are, almost by definition, unusual things to start with, something in the sky that we don’t know what it is. We don’t see them every night. So we have no idea [at the beginning of an investigation] if they’re going to be productive or not,” Nickell says.
Despite these difficulties, some investigators are already bringing the rigor of science to examine UFO reports. Some, like Nickell, are hunting down witnesses and testing theories; others, like Chase Kloetzke, the deputy director of investigations at MUFON, the world’s oldest and largest UFO investigation group, are retrieving physical evidence and testing alloys of unknown metals with cutting-edge microscopes and trained metallurgists. A number of organizations receive private funding, which sometimes means they have fewer resources than they would if they received governments grants. And the work is often thankless. “I’m trying, in the name of science, to do what most scientists don’t have time to do, what they consider frivolous nonsense,” Nickell says. “UFOs have been looked into now by the tens of thousands, even by official government studies. And what do we have to show? Not a lot. How many more will we have to look into? I would say we will never be done. I’m in it for the long haul.”
To do these sorts of investigations, it’s irrelevant whether or not they believe that extraterrestrials have really visited Earth. All people need is a rigorous scientific mind, perseverance to investigate doggedly, and a sensitive nose for falsehoods.
Now that information about the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program has spilled out, it buoys those who hope that the government might have evidence that could more clearly indicate the presence of extraterrestrials, something that stands up to the rigor of scientific evaluation. “Do we have a smoking gun? We do, it’s just locked up,” Kloetzke, of MUFON, says referring to the “physical material [the government] has been holding and analyzing.” “We’re pushing down the doors. We’re trying to breach this information,” she says.
Still, opinions vary on how much evidence is enough to prove the existence of extraterrestrials. “I think most people are going to need a craft to land in Central Park [to believe UFOs are real],” Kloetzke says.
“There is absolutely no solid evidence that meets any standards of scientific ‘proof’ that UFOs exist. That’s why people can’t take it seriously,” Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at MIT who studies exoplanets and was quoted in the New York Times article, tells Futurism. To some, in the end, evidence doesn’t matter. “I am not a UFO supporter in any way. It’s just like why do people believe in God? There’s no way to scientifically prove the existence of any God or gods. People just want to believe.”