Winston Churchill: alien life is out there

Looking up: Churchill became prime minister the year after writing the unpublished article.

A newly-found article shows the man who led Britain to victory in the second world war arguing life may exist on other planets. Most scientists agree. So what are the chances they are right?

They have built pyramids on Mars. They crashed in the desert, and the US government has covered it up. They have left messages in crop circles.

These are some of the conspiracy theories around aliens’ existence. Such stories may be far-fetched. But yesterday it emerged that one of the 20th century’s most revered leaders thought extra-terrestrial life may exist.

Historians in the USA found an unpublished article, entitled Are we alone in the universe? It was written in 1939, the year the second world war began, by Winston Churchill.

He referred to the hostile international climate: ‘I am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilisation here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures,’ he wrote.

Some of his ideas now look prophetic. He predicted that other stars could host planets. He said life could exist in a narrow region around each star, and a large fraction of distant worlds would be the right size to keep ‘water and possibly an atmosphere’.

So was he right about alien life? Many scientists now think so. In 1961 Frank Drake proposed a calculation called the Drake equation, to estimate the probability that life existed on other planets. At the time the values needed to perform it were mostly unknown.

But last year two American physicists reached two striking conclusions. Even if only one in every million stars hosted a technologically advanced species, they said, there would be around 300,000 such civilisations in the Milky Way alone. And there is just a one in 60 billion chance that no advanced species has existed in our galaxy outside Earth.

Their suspicions may soon be confirmed. In 2014 Seth Shostak of SETI estimated that alien life would be detected by 2040. In 2016 some thought it had happened, when a star was found giving out unusual patterns of brightness. Scientists now think they were wrong and it had swallowed up a planet. But has this just delayed the inevitable?

Light years away

We cannot be alone, say some. It is simple logic: if life can evolve on Earth, it can evolve anywhere. Even when we study our own galaxy — a tiny portion of the universe — the mathematics is overwhelming. Churchill was right: human beings should have the humility to realise that evolution could produce something more advanced than us.

Remain sceptical, say others. The Drake equation still relies on wild guesswork because we know so little about the universe and life’s origins. We have no idea, for example, how likely a civilisation is to develop on any habitable planet. And we should consider Fermi’s paradox: if aliens existed, we should know about it by now.

You Decide

  1. Which do you trust more: statistics or instinct?
  2. Does alien life exist?

Activities

  1. Work in pairs. You have one minute. One of you, write as many sentences as you can starting: ‘Alien life probably exists because…’ The other, write sentences starting: ‘Alien life probably doesn’t exist because…’ Then discuss as a class.
  2. Find out more about Drake’s equation. Write a one-page explanation of it in your own words, so someone three years younger than you could understand it.

Some People Say...

“We cannot be alone — the universe is too big.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Aliens won’t be found in my lifetime — can’t I just ignore them?
Not so fast. Institutes such as SETI, which search for alien life, are quickly developing new technology. Their search is accelerating quickly. And even if not, the discoveries made will teach us a great deal about our place in the history of the universe. Who knows what impact that could have on our species?
Who cares what a politician who died ages ago thought about science?
Churchill was a politician, but he was well-informed on science. He was the first British prime minister to hire a science adviser. He often met scientists who pioneered new technology, helping Britain win the second world war. Churchill was controversial but undoubtedly a very intelligent man with great influence. You can learn a lot from his writing.

Word Watch

Historians
At the National Churchill Museum in Missouri.
Host
Exoplanets (planets orbiting a star outside our solar system) were not discovered until 1992.
Region
Scientists now call this the ‘habitable’ or ‘Goldilocks’ zone.
Drake equation
Multiply the rate at which stars form in our galaxy by the fraction of stars which have planets; the average number of planets per star that could support life; the fraction of those that develop life; the fraction of life bearing planets that develop civilisation; and the length of time a civilisation might last.
Physicists
University professors Adam Frank and Woodruff Sullivan.
Existed
The study concluded humanity would only be the cosmos’s first technologically advanced species if the probability of a civilisation developing on a potentially habitable alien planet was less than one in 10 billion trillion.
SETI
The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence institute in California.
Fermi’s paradox
The contradiction between lack of evidence and high probability, eg, of alien life.

Subjects

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