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Winston Churchill's Ideas About Alien Worlds Were Surprisingly Modern

Many of Winston Churchill's 77-year-old ideas are shockingly modern, with many of them still held by today's astronomers.
IMAGE: Winston Churchill in 1954
Winston Churchill in London in March 1954.AP

Winston Churchill, Britain's inspirational World War II leader, was also far ahead of his time when it came to thinking about the stars, a never-published article he wrote in 1939 reveals.

In the article — titled "Are We Alone in the Universe?" — Churchill took time away from forging the British resistance to Adolf Hitler to muse about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. And many of his 77-year-old ideas are shockingly modern, many of them are still held by today's astronomers.

Churchill even predicted the likelihood of extrasolar planets able to harbor water and breathable atmospheres, a half-century before they were discovered in the 1990s, according to Mario Livio, a noted astronomer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope for many years.

The document was uncovered last year at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, Livio wrote in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature. Churchill's article — probably penned for the former News of the World Sunday newspaper — "mirrors many modern arguments in astrobiology," Livio wrote.

Churchill leads his readers through a logical argument that concludes that:

  • Humans on Earth are highly unlikely to be the only advanced life in the universe.
  • That's because "all living things of the type we know require water" — and water is abundant in the cosmos. The search for liquid water is still a driving factor in scientists' search for extraterrestrial life today, Livio notes.
  • Most planets in our solar system are too hot, too cold or both to host life as we know it, leaving Mars and Venus as only nearby planets where life could flourish.

NASA's chief scientist said last month that Mars is by far the best place to look for life, and European scientists already are sending life-seeking robots to the red planet. Astrobiology Magazine, meanwhile, reported just last month that a team of U.S. and Russian scientists has proposed a journey to Venus, with "the search for life in its mission goals."

  • "The sun is merely one star in our galaxy, which contains several thousand millions of others" — which today is part of the standard model.

Related: Scientists Eye 3 New Earth-Sized Worlds in Hunt for E.T.

"Churchill's essay is testament to how he saw the fruits of science and technology as essential for society's development," Livio wrote, concluding:

"Particularly given today's political landscape, elected leaders should heed Churchill's example: appoint permanent science advisers and make good use of them."