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Winston Churchill, the astrophysicist

Winston Churchill was one of the most consequential leaders of the 20th century. Some months ago, I watched a movie about him that claimed that Churchill did many of the impressive things in order to prove to his father that he was no loser. It worked rather well because I don't have a clue who his father was.

Aside from the successful resistance to the Third Reich, Churchill supervised the construction of the British radar and their nuclear program. His focus on science and technology in warfare was self-evident. As early as in 1931, he wrote a text estimating the amazing power hiding in the fusion of hydrogen nuclei – most people would be incapable of estimating these things (and maybe even knowing qualitatively what's going on) today. He was also writing about evolution. Already as a young man, he pointed out that Islam was the most retrograde force in the world, an insight that some people failed to get even one century later.

But he's been an essayist, too. A new issue of Nature (thanks, Willie Soon!) printed astrophysicist Mario Livio's text

Winston Churchill’s essay on alien life found (a free copy via SciAm)
which mainly discusses a 1939 text by Churchill about astrophysics and life in the outer space. And he was rather amazing.




There are lots of things he figured out or intelligently thought about. First, he questioned a prevailing theory of his time – by James Jeans – that planets are only born when two stars collide which is a rare event, and therefore the number of planets in the Universe is small. Instead, Churchill noticed that that there are binary stars and there should therefore be rather widespread exoplanets, too. Needless to say, Churchill was right while the consensus was wrong – these days, we know that the exoplanets aren't as impossible or rare as Jeans argued. Churchill continues by introducing the concept of a habitable zone – although he doesn't use the current terminology. Life is mainly about the ability to reproduce and water seems to be important for that, so he looks at places with the right temperature and picks Mars and Venus as the potential places for life.

In this part of the essay, Churchill more or less went through the argumentation we associate with Francis Drake – the estimate of the number of exoplanets. If you exaggerate just a little bit, and maybe even if you don't, you could claim that the Drake equation should be called the Churchill equation. Except that Churchill was much more cautious than Drake in answering the – obviously not yet settled – question whether there are actually many ETs out there.




There are lots of such gems and Churchill's views about basically everything seem to be very modern and scientific. They're not just more scientific than what you would expect from a politician in 1939: they are more scientific than what you could get from almost all politicians who are alive today, almost 80 years later. And maybe we wouldn't have to talk about politicians only.

Livio's lesson is that politicians should have permanent science advisers and exploit them. Statistical physicist Frederick Lindemann, 1st Viscount Cherwell, was Churchill's science adviser (and a big defender of area bombing of Germany). It is possible that Churchill had so intelligent views on astrophysics, life in the Universe, fusion, evolution, and other things partly because of his interactions with this adviser.

Maybe Churchill was spending lots of time with Lindemann while contemporary politicians, even if they have science advisers, only have them as a decoration of some sort. Recall that most people have bought Hawking's Brief History of Time in order to place the book on a bookshelf and increase the owner's IQ by some 50 points in this way ;-) and I guess that this is (or was?) the attitude of most of the superficial politicians to science, too.

By the way, some titles in the media are deeply misleading. The Irish Independent tells us that Churchill believed in aliens. Those who only read the title – and that's a majority of those who interact with the article at all – will mostly conclude that Churchill was a nutcase similar to Jack Sarfatti who believes that he's been abducted by the aliens etc. The truth is exactly the opposite: Churchill was more scientifically penetrating than almost everyone.

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