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Making room for science

S Ananthanarayanan |

Winston Churchill, who led Britain during World War II, is remembered for his acute political acumen, statesmanship and dauntless courage. It would be news to many that he was also closely associated with the sciences.

Astrophysicist Mario Livio recently wrote a “comment” in the journal, Nature, where he chronicles Churchill’s scholarship and his commitment to science. The article describes how Churchill wrote extensively on the most current scientific subjects of the times and, in 1940, was the first Prime Minister to appoint a formal science adviser to the government.

Livio is an Israeli-American astrophysicist and is well known for his many books that bring fundamental ideas in science and mathematics within the reach of ordinary readers. What prompted Livio to write about Churchill is the rediscovery, in 2016, of an article on the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, by Churchill.

Churchill, back in 1939, discusses the topic much in the same scientific idiom of the current quest for exoplanets. Despite Churchill’s fine credentials as a follower of the sciences, the quality of the article came as a surprise, Livio says.

Churchill was passionate about science and technology. “Aged 22, while stationed with the British Army in India in 1896, he read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and a primer on physics,” Livio writes. Later, in the 1920s and 30s, Churchill wrote popular science essays in newspapers and magazines. Nuclear power itself was just a concept in 1932 and became something of a reality only by 1942.

But Churchill, even in 1931, in an article in The Strand Magazine, had described nuclear fusion power, “If the hydrogen atoms in a pound of water could be prevailed upon to combine together and form helium, they would suffice to drive a thousand-horsepower engine for a whole year,” he wrote.

Churchill was in regular contact with Bernard Lowell, the celebrated radio astronomer, later first director of the Jordell Bank observatory, and the physicist Frederick Lindemann, whom Churchill appointed as his principal scientific adviser. These associations surely influenced Churchill in the strong support that he extended to the development of radar and the British nuclear programme.

Lindemann helped set up a “statistical branch” of the government, with systematic collection and analyses of data from a variety of sources. Economic information, like the status of the nation’s food supplies, or the tonnage of shipping being handled, became accurately and rapidly available.

A branch of the Imperial War Rooms, a London museum, has records of bar charts that compared bomb tonnage dropped by Germany on Britain with that dropped by the Allies on Germany each month, testimony to the value placed of statistics, with the active participation of the Prime Minister, in directing the war effort. Livio refers to an exchange between Churchill and Air Chief Marshall Arthur “Bomber” Harris, over the use of statistics to combat the German U-Boats.

Air Chief Marshall Harris, who preferred “sustained area bombing” to the government policy of “strategic and targeted bombing”, asked, “Are we fighting this war with weapons or slide rules?”. “Let’s try the slide rule,” Churchill is reported to have replied. “The science-friendly environment that Churchill created in the United Kingdom through government funding of laboratories, telescopes and technology development spawned post-war discoveries and inventions in fields from molecular genetics to X-ray crystallography,” Livio says in the essay. Let us return to Churchill’s article on extra-terrestrial life.

The article was penned, Livio says, perhaps for London’s News of the World, a Sunday newspaper, in 1939. Churchill revised it slightly in the 1950s, but left it with Emery Reves, his publisher. Reves’ wife, Wendy, passed the manuscript on to the US National Churchill Museum archives in the 1980s. It may be only in 2016, when Time Riley became the director, that the article shown to Livio, who may be its first commentator.

Churchill, in the article, reasons that the chief characteristic of life is the ability to reproduce. Although viruses share this ability, Churchill decides to focus on “comparatively highly-organised life”, presumably multicellular life. Next, he reasons that “all living things of the type we know require water”.

Although there can be life that depends on substances too, the bases that we have lead us first to look for water, and then for water in liquid form. This leads Churchill to reason that heavenly bodies that support life must have surface temperature “between a few degrees of frost and the boiling point of water”.

This is possible on the earth, he explains, because of how far it is from the sun, which leads us on to the kind of planets of other suns that we need to look for, if we can hope to find signs of life on them. Churchill also examines the question of how massive a planet needs to be, given how hot it is, so that it can retain its atmosphere.

And he concludes that a large fraction of extra solar planets “will be the right size to keep on their surface water and possibly an atmosphere of some sort” and some will be “at the proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature”.

Churchill, that political leader, statesman and man of letters, back in 1939, when England was on the point of going to war, penned an article on a subject that included most and may have surpassed some parts of known science, at a level that said all that there is even 78 years later. “At a time when a number of today’s politicians shun science”, Livio concludes, “I find it moving to recall a leader who engaged with it so profoundly.”

Closer home, independent India started with the scientist, Meghnad Saha, serving as a Member of Parliament and with the support, for statistics and planning, of the legendary Prasantra Chandra Mahalanobis.

And about the same time the audacity of Homi Bhabha who conceived a full fledged atomic energy programme for a country that was struggling to get on its feet, found support from Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister.

The world and the country are now facing challenges that only great inventiveness and the best use of resources would enable us to overcome. We also need great objectivity to recognise priorities and make correct choices — having hard science as a guide may never have been more important.

The writer can be contacted at [email protected]