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The truth about Winston Churchill and aliens by Cambridge University academic Graham Farmelo


By Tim Radford


Graham Farmelo, Churchill College, University of Cambridge, Storeys Way, Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell
Graham Farmelo, Churchill College, University of Cambridge, Storeys Way, Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell

Fleetingly, it made headlines: the revelation, in the journal Nature, of an apparently unpublished popular science article by Winston Churchill on the theme of extraterrestrial life.

The statue of Sir Winston Churchill, looking across Parliament Square towards Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
The statue of Sir Winston Churchill, looking across Parliament Square towards Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.

It was certainly news for billions, but the article had been published and some people already knew that – especially people at Churchill College, Cambridge.

One was Graham Farmelo, a by-fellow of Churchill College and author of Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics, published by Faber in 2013. He is also an adjunct professor of physics at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and works each summer at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

He spotted the speculation on alien existence in the Churchill Archives, while looking for very different connections a century ago between the wartime leader who would go on to win the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature and the men who were to shape the nuclear age.

“I saw it. I knew I had seen it. I didn’t make a big song and dance about it for a very good reason: it was not about the nuclear dimension, and there are so many things Churchill did about that, I was spoiled for choice,” Dr Farmelo says.

Graham Farmelo is a by-fellow of Churchill College, University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Graham Farmelo is a by-fellow of Churchill College, University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

“That said, I was kicking myself. Someone else would have seen the immediate appeal of aliens. I’m indifferent to that kind of story. I know it’s very popular with the public and now I’m kicking myself because I didn’t put a sentence in there.”

The discovery that wasn’t was also a reminder that at least one politician revered in the modern world clearly understood that science mattered, and mattered greatly.

“The most impressive thing about Churchill to me – and let us leave aside 1940 for the moment – is that this is a guy who is told by his father that he will never amount to anything, there is no point in sending you to university. So he joins the Army, and what does he do? Does he go round the whorehouses and play polo all day long? No, he basically sets up his own private Open University and reads and reads and reads.”

Churchill’s reading included H G Wells and Charles Darwin, and an introduction to physics. The young Churchill had not been good at science or mathematics. But he knew that he wanted to go into politics and become Prime Minister. To do that, says Farmelo, he believed he needed to know some science.

Graham Farmelo, Churchill College, University of Cambridge, Storeys Way, Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell
Graham Farmelo, Churchill College, University of Cambridge, Storeys Way, Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell

The story of how he set about it is preserved in the Churchill Archives in Cambridge and begins with the author of The Time Machine.

“Wells, so often patronised by people, had an amazing talent for picking up contemporary science and showing how it might be used in civil and military life. And Churchill spotted that, as did many other people. He read all his books twice. You heard me correctly, he read them all twice, and said so.”

They corresponded, they met, they dined. Churchill’s embrace of science and technology in warfare was shaped by Wells. After the First World War, the then premier Lloyd George credited Churchill with promoting the tank, but Churchill in his turn wanted the credit to go to the author of the 1903 short story The Land Ironclads.

The relationship continued. But the science education of the soldier and journalist who became First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Munitions, Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer before being relegated to the political wilderness, only to remerge in 1940 as wartime Prime Minister, was to be most directly influenced by another figure. This was Frederick Lindemann, professor of physics at Oxford.

Churchill Archives Centre. ?Churchill College, Cambridge
Churchill Archives Centre. ?Churchill College, Cambridge

Churchill may have been the first politician to invoke the possibility of nuclear weapons and did so in 1925, with “a bomb no bigger than an orange” that could obliterate a township. The concern was inspired by Wells, but delivered with a note of his own pessimism. (Churchill headed the article “Shall We All Commit Suicide?”)

“A very strong brand of Churchill was his belief that the science was growing faster than humankind’s ability to come to terms with it. That was absolutely fundamental to Churchill – he had it right the way through to his death.”

When, between the wars, Churchill launched his mostly-forgotten career as a science journalist, his articles were drafted by Lindemann. And one of them – published first in 1942 and then again in 1975 and preserved in the Churchill Archives but then almost forgotten – was a speculation upon the conditions for extraterrestrial life.

It ended with the sentence: “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.”

Graham Farmelo, Churchill College, University of Cambridge, Storeys Way, Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell
Graham Farmelo, Churchill College, University of Cambridge, Storeys Way, Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell

“They were all drafted by Lindemann,” says Farmelo. “But make no mistake, they weren’t just handed over. Churchill edited them, put the nuclear bomb up front – I can demonstrate that he did that – and he was basically putting in front of four million people, every week, on their breakfast tables what you and I would call science journalism – speculative articles, lightly written, very readable, not deep, but nonetheless very well informed.”

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Graham Farmelo is the author of Churchills Bomb: A Hidden history of Science, War and Politics
Graham Farmelo is the author of Churchills Bomb: A Hidden history of Science, War and Politics

:: Read more brilliant, exclusive features from our Science team every Wednesday in the Cambridge Independent



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