Churchill and the importance of a cosmic outlook
Philip Ellison 20 February, 2017 at 03:02
As anti-intellectualism takes over politics, a newly discovered Churchill essay reminds us of the value of the sciences.
It’s an interesting time to be a scientist. Recent proposed policy changes in the United States have the scientific community deeply troubled, most notably the assertion that science is somehow a bipartisan arena, or a matter of opinion.
These concerns aren’t exactly helped by the candidates for science advisor to Donald Trump. The frontrunner for the job is retired physicist William Happer, who believes the scientific evidence for climate change is a “lie” and has called scientists who support the theory a “glassy-eyed cult.” He’s closely followed by computer scientist and author David Gelernter, who wrote a book blaming intellectualism for “the disintegration of patriotism and traditional family values.”
Contrast that with historic political figure Winston Churchill, whose pro-science stance has been overshadowed by his status as a leader and orator. Arguably better-versed in the sciences than many of his contemporaries, Churchill was an outspoken supporter of STEM fields. He authored articles on topics such as evolution in the 1920s and 30s, and was the first British prime minister to appoint a scientific advisor (physicist Frederick Lindemann).
In a recently uncovered essay, Churchill exercises a strong working knowledge of the most up-to-date scientific knowledge of his time while speculating about the existence of life on other planets. Entitled ‘Are We Alone In The Universe?’, the essay was written in 1939 and amended in the 1950s to accommodate changes in scientific thinking.
“I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets,” he wrote, decades before the discovery of thousands of planets outside our own solar system. The essay is also prescient on the subject of space travel; “One day, possibly even in the not very distant future, it may be possible to travel to the moon, or even to Venus or Mars.”
“Churchill’s essay is testament to how he saw the fruits of science and technology as essential for society’s development,” says Nature’s Mario Livio. “Yet he was also concerned that without understanding the humanities, scientists might operate in a moral vacuum… Churchill was a science enthusiast and advocate, but he also contemplated important scientific questions in the context of human values. Particularly given today’s political landscape, elected leaders should heed Churchill’s example: appoint permanent science advisers and make good use of them.”
In addition to shedding extra light on an already-significant and celebrated man, this essay embodies the humility required of true scientific inquiry; an acceptance that we know less today than we will tomorrow. It also posits the idea that as long as the human race remains unequal and in conflict, it is unlikely to be the most advanced form of life:
“I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilisation 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.”
These words ring just as true in 2017 as they did against the backdrop of political and social turmoil of 1939. But rather than being disheartened by how little we have progressed in the last ninety years, perhaps we should adopt a similarly cosmic outlook.
With the rise of anti-intellectualism threatening to stifle innovation, it’s more important than ever that we defend the sciences, and work towards making this the kind of planet that aliens might actually want to visit.