Finest Hour 176, Spring 2017
An eleven-page essay by Winston Churchill entitled “Are We Alone in the Universe?” in the archives of the National Churchill Museum has developed into an international news story that revealed Churchill was clearly open to the possibility of extra-terrestrial life on other planets.
Churchill drafted his first version of the essay in 1939 and then revised the text slightly in the 1950s. The manuscript of the revised version was among four boxes of materials that were donated to the museum some thirty years ago by Wendy Reves, widow of Churchill literary agent Emery Reves. There it sat unnoticed until its rediscovery last year.
Seeking insights about the validity or the accuracy of Churchill’s astronomical perspective, Timothy Riley, Sandra L. and Monroe E. Trout Director and Chief Curator of the National Churchill Museum, provided the essay to Westminster science faculty as well as renowned astrophysicist Mario Livio, during his Hancock Symposium lecture at Westminster College last fall.
Excitement grew when Livio and the Westminster science faculty expressed great amazement over Churchill’s faith in science and his belief in potential alien life on other planets. Riley gave support to Livio, who wrote an extensive article about the essay for the 16 February 2017 issue of Nature, the prestigious science journal.
The article touched off an avalanche of news stories in the New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, The Huffington Post, U.S. News and World Report, The Guardian, the South China Morning Post, the Times of Israel, El Universio, and El Diario and was carried by the newsagencies Reuters, Agence France-Press (AFP), AFP Japan, and Xinhua, the official news agency of the People’s Republic of China. And the story continued to grow.
Newsweek, Smithsonian, the Christian Science Monitor, The Independent, The Times of London, and hundreds of other publications began using the news story, followed by regional, national, and international broadcast outlets from NBC and Fox News to NPR and the BBC, as well as Yahoo and dozens of major online news portals worldwide.
According to news monitoring services, the collected stories to date have been read, heard, or watched by a potential newspaper, magazine, TV, radio, and online audience of more than 6.8 billion people around the globe.
Professor Christopher Bell of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, however, rightly noted after the widespread media attention claimed the work to be “a lost essay,” that a shortened version of the work entitled “Are There Men in the Moon?” was in fact published in London’s Sunday Dispatch on 8 March 1942 and later included in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill (1975).
Can We Really Say “Are We Alone in the Universe?” is an unpublished Churchill essay?
Churchill’s original 1939 draft on extraterrestrial life was entitled “Are We Alone in Space?” and is now in the collection of the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge (CHAR 8/644). This version went unpublished in 1939, though notes in the Cambridge archives seem to indicate that it was originally intended for the News of the World.
The revised manuscript from the 1950s in the National Churchill Museum is identical to the 1939 “Are We Alone in Space?” text apart from minor typographical differences and the change in title from “Space” to “the Universe.”
While it is true that much of “Are There Men in the Moon?” contains the same content as the earlier “Are We Alone in Space?” and the later “Are We Alone in the Universe?” there are important differences.
The “Universe” and “Space” manuscripts begin the same way as the published “Moon” essay:
Does life exist elsewhere in the Universe?—indeed a fascinating question.
What immediately follows in the “Space” and “Universe” versions is the chief difference between those texts and “Are There Men in the Moon?”
After the “indeed a fascinating question” opening, which all three versions of the essay share, the “Space” and “Universe” manuscripts contain the following:
To answer it we must agree on what we call Life. It may seem that this is rather like the well-known story of the elephant; we may not be able to define an elephant, but we know one when we see it.
About life this is not quite true.
One is apt to think that the most important characteristics of a living entity are that it can breed and multiply.
If one finds that units placed in a suitable environment can absorb some of the matter surrounding them and increase in numbers, one is inclined to say they are obviously alive.
Now this very simple, as it would appear fundamental, criterion would seem to most of us to provide a sharp dividing line between living and non-living matter; but the line to-day is badly blurred. There are certain curious substances called “viruses,” which have been much studied because they are capable of producing disease.
The particles of which they are presumably composed are too small to be seen under the microscope, but if you keep a small amount of the virus in the proper conditions for a few days, it is found to increase in quantity.
It was always considered, therefore, to consist of sub-microscopic living entities like very small bacteria, which could multiply in suitable circumstances.
Now it has proved possible—for instance in the case of virus which produces tobacco disease—to isolate it and crystalize it.
To all intents and purposes such a crystal is what in the nursery game would be called a mineral. [Note: this sentence is unique to the “Universe” manuscript.]
No one would believe that a lump of sugar or salt could be alive.
Well, here we have a crystal not very much different in kind from a lump of barley sugar, which is the virus we know will increase and multiply given the right environment.
Is it alive or not?
It is not so easy as it seemed to say exactly what we mean when we ask this question.
Still bearing those difficulties in mind, it is interesting to speculate where it is likely that comparatively highly-organized life, as to which there can be no argument, exists elsewhere or not.
The other difference is a short passage—a sentence or two—about Jupiter, which was also omitted from the published “Moon” version.
The vast interest in all things Churchill certainly proves that he is as relevant today as he was in 1939 and draws more international interest than most anyone on the planet, despite the fact he passed away more than fifty years ago.