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'Are We Alone?' Churchill Concludes It's Likely Life Circles Other Suns

This image made by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows part of a group of five galaxies known as Stephan's Quintet.
NASA, ESA, Hubble SM4 ERO Team
This image made by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows part of a group of five galaxies known as Stephan's Quintet.

We keep on learning from great lives.

On Oct. 16, 1939, just weeks after Germany invaded Poland and Britain was at war, Winston Churchill, who had warned of Germany's wicked and avaricious ambitions, was called out of political isolation to become First Lord of the Admiralty and drafted an essay in which he asked, perhaps himself as much as anyone who would read it, "Are We Alone in the Universe?"

The National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Mo., has found a copy of those 11 pages that were apparently given to the museum in the 1980s, and recently rediscovered. It may have been drafted for the old Sunday newspaper, News of the World.

The world was engulfed by the war he had foreseen, and would do so much to win. Despite or perhaps because of it, in the fall of 1939, Churchill turned his thoughts to the possibility of other worlds.

"I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets," he wrote. "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."

Churchill made his living — and he liked to live well — as a professional writer, between his terms as a member of Parliament. What you see in this essay is his embrace of ideas, and his worldly — maybe we should say otherworldly — vision. He grasps that though the number of planets that could potentially hold the exquisite balance of elements and temperatures that could lead to life seems small, the universe is limitless.

Mario Livio, the Israeli-American astrophysicist who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, wrote about it in Nature. "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 had read and enjoyed The War of the Worlds, by his friend H.G. Wells, in which Wells describes Martians as, "minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic."

To imperial Britain, Martians could be made to embody human fear of "the other."

But in 1939 Winston Churchill wrote, "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."

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.