Saturday, June 24, 2017

Winston Churchill on Alien Life

History of Science
Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Astrophysicist Mario Livio notes that he may be the first scientist to read Winston Churchill's unpublished essay, Are We Alone in the Universe? Written in 1939, Timothy Riley, director of the US National Churchill Museum (Fulton, Missouri), rediscovered it in in 2016 and handed it to Livio to read on a recent visit.

Churchill scientific literacy is very impressive. I include a few highlights from a recent essay by Livio on his observations and speculations. The role of evidence, uncertainty and Churchill's reasoning is a joy to read.

Winston Churchill [Wikimedia]

—"All living things of the type we know require water." This didn't exclude the possibility of other liquids but Churchill noted that "nothing in our present knowledge entitles us to make such an assumption." And Livio draws our attention to the prominent role of liquid water in the search for extraterrestrial life.

—Churchill defined what is known as the Goldilocks region or habitable zone for life — not too cold nor too warm. Churchill wrote that life is possible in a narrow zone, one "between a few degrees of frost and the boiling point of water." The temperature of the earth was fixed by the distance from the sun. The Earth was of the right size to hold onto its atmosphere. These conditions led Churchill to conclude that Venus and Mars represent the limits due to these constraints.

—James Jeans's hypothesis on planetary formation held sway during the time Churchill was writing this essay. According to Jeans, planets were formed when a star passing close enough to another star pulled gas from it. This hypothesis loss support many years ago. Jeans's hypothesis led Churchill to note that "our sun may be indeed exceptional, possibly unique." What he reasoned next is remarkable. "But this speculation depends upon the hypothesis that planets were formed this way. Perhaps they were not. We know there are millions of double stars, and if they can be formed why not planetary systems? I am not conceited enough to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets."

—Using the evidence at hand Churchill concluded that a large number of extrasolar planets "will be the right size to keep on their surface water and possibly an atmosphere of some sort." Some of those planets were likely to be "at the proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature."

—Churchill thought that the possibility of Solar System exploration was likely. Interstellar travel and communication were not likely because of the difficulty presented by the enormity of the distances involved.

—Two comments Livio made about Churchill's view of science provide some insight into.

During the second world war he championed the use of statistical analysis in the fight against U-Boats. His Air Chief Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris complained. (So, Air Marshall Harris just what is your preferred strategy?) He asked "Are we fighting this war with weapons or slide rules?" Churchill's answer was "Let's try the slide rule."

You may never have seen a slide rule but it is a calculator that looks somewhat like a wide ruler with a sliding center piece. It was developed in the 17th century and is based on logarithms. It is a remarkable invention.

I used slide rule as an undergraduate student at Syracuse University. Many engineering students I knew attached the slide rule case to their belt where it would dangle from their hip, slinger fashion. I never felt that I was taking or using enough mathematics to do that! On the other hand, it was stolen and maybe I should have. That slide rule was replaced it with a much more inexpensive plastic model, one nearly as accurate as my original, that I still have but no longer use.

In 1958, Churchill College, University of Cambridge, UK was established. While a champion of science and engineering, Churchill wrote "We need scientists in the world but not a world of scientists." In a convocation at MIT in 1949, Churchill put this statement in context. "If, with all the resources of modern science, we find ourselves unable to avert world famine, we shall all be to blame."

Professor Mario Livio's essay was published in the Comment section of Nature. Livio adds much more about the essay as well as about Churchill's deep love for science and technology. He constantly interacted with practitioners and read scientific publications, including Charles Darwin. However, perhaps nothing should surprise us about Churchill's deep intellect and voracious curiosity.

Additionally, Rachel Martin, Steve Inskeep and Mario Livio discussed the essay on NPR's Morning Edition.

No comments:

Post a Comment