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For African-American travelers in the Jim Crow-era South—often journeying from the north to visit relatives who had not joined the Great Migration—an unprepossessing paper-bound travel guide often amounted to a survival kit. The Green Book often functioned as a lifesaver.
Visionary publisher-entrepreneur Victor Green, a Harlem postal carrier, introduced the travel guide in 1937. For blacks denied access to restaurants, hotels and restrooms—and who often risked even greater danger if they were driving after dark—it was an essential resource, listing hundreds of establishments, across the South and the nation, that welcomed African-Americans.
Before the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation, the Green Book sold in the millions and was passed from family member to family member. For those who relied on it, it amounted to an essential safety precaution. Today, it is a potent artifact of discrimination.
The Green Book is also the subject of filmmaker Ric Burns’s forthcoming documentary. Burns is exploring the Green Book as a window into history, and into the present, where the experience of driving while black is again at the center of our national conversation. I spoke with Burns about what he’s learned so far in making this film.
Watch this video in the original article
How did you encounter the Green Book originally?
A colleague of mine named Gretchen Sorin, who runs a Cooperstown Museum institute, is an extraordinary historian who did her dissertation on the Green Book decades ago. And she approached me some time ago and said, “Let’s do a film about this.” And there’s nobody who knows more about the Green Book than her. And she just really sort of made it her own, did oral histories, went to many of the places, has collected over a couple of decades an amazing archive of material.
And what drew you to the Green Book project?
I was born in 1955, so anybody who’s got roots through their own life or their parents or their grandparents, during the era when America became a car culture.
You know, all those things like the old Esso sign, motels, Howard Johnson’s. It’s part of the inner imaginary of America. And what non-African-American Americans don’t know is that that story has a completely different cast to it. It just unfolded in a completely different way, so as you’re driving into Greenville, Texas, across whose main street the banner reads, “Greenville, Texas. The black is soil, the white is people.” You’re having a different experience in the family car.
We’re making a film called “Driving While Black,” which is covering this period when suddenly the automobile dawns for black Americans as it does for all Americans. It’s like mobility. You have agency. You’re not dependent on somebody else’s timetable or schedule. You go where you want, when you want.
But for black Americans, suddenly, the whole question of mobility and race in America is a huge powder keg. Now you as a black person are crossing white space. What happens when your car breaks down? What happens when you need to get gas? What happens when your four-year-old needs to go to the bathroom? Where are you going to eat? Where are you going to sleep? God forbid something should happen like a car accident, a medical emergency. How are you going to get to the hospital? What hospital will take you? I mean, this whole inventory of experience. All of which we are so deeply intimately in the homeliest way, associated with the American experience. I mean, it’s all this simple stuff. As soon as there was a car, there was that agency, but there was also those challenges.
[This film] is an opportunity to fill in a blank spot on the inner map of America. Where you kind of go, “Well, there’s the Civil War and then there’s something called Reconstruction, maybe Jim Crow means something to people, but really what’s something that organizes credibly and resonantly, the experience of race in America in the 1920s down through the Civil Rights Movement?”
What were some of the unexpected discoveries that you’ve made with sources? What were some of your surprises during the time that you’ve been excavating this?
We’re right in kind of the first phases of it, just beginning filming it. So those surprises are still to come. But I’ll say, the incredible thing about this topic, this whole area, is a surprise for non-African-American Americans.
Because what dawns on you is that there’s a reality that you never really understood existed. And once it’s there, that surprising revelation is completely transformative. One of the things that made the automobile so enfranchising for black Americans was that it was a little hard to see who was driving a car. As [Nobel laureate and economist] Gunnar Myrdal put it, equality begins at around 25 miles per hour. All these elaborate codes (e.g. black Americans must stop and give way to white Americans) begin to go by the wayside. You’re kind of in your own self-enclosed world as you move through the highway world of America. And you have what contact you wish to have. And you can also not have contact if you wish not to have contact.
That made this experience one which was both all too familiar in ways that were happy for black Americans and also very, very frustrating, and sometimes lethal. And for white Americans, completely unknown. The Negro Motorist’s Green Book. And it was just one of many. The Go Guide, the Travel Guide. The Travel Guide has this wonderful slogan on the cover: “Vacation and Recreation Without Humiliation.”
Oh, that’s great.
I loved the fact that Victor Green truncated the great Mark Twain quote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice” and put it on the cover of every issue of the thing. But the whole quote is, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
What else have you learned?
If you were a musician or an athlete, you were doing a lot of traveling around America, and cars made it much easier to get to where you wanted to go, and Green Books made it easier to find the places to stay; nevertheless, driving while black was always really difficult. There’s kind of a painful existential bottom line here.
It’s integrated into the reality of American experience. Thurgood Marshall has an incredible story about the “sundown town.” He’s in Shreveport and basically the police are saying, “Nigger boy, what are you doing here? You better be out of town before sundown.” Who but African-Americans happen to have in their heads “sundown town” as a reality? It’s not for nothing that the last Green guide is published in 1966. And it’s not for nothing that Victor Green said in his editor’s note in the beginning, the time will come and I hope it comes soon, that this guide will no longer be necessary. But until it is, happy motoring, folks.
And there’s all sorts of stuff. Esso, the kind of way in which commerce and consumerism and capitalism saw ways of marketing to new demographics, so God bless Esso, now Exxon. They saw the opportunity and went, you know what? We’re reaching out. And the reason why we’re having this conversation is because of the relationship that Victor Green established with Standard Oil.
And that put the Green Book on the map in a particularly special way. My family, when we drove our American Rambler into an Esso station in 1958 in Delaware. Even though I could ask my mother and father, and I did in Rehoboth, Delaware. There may not quite be sundown towns in Pennsylvania or Michigan, maybe in name only they’re not sundown towns.
When you sort of think about the overall narrative arc, do you see a sort of overall beginning, middle, end narrative arc that’s going to be imposed on this film yet?
We have a strong idea of it. The main narrative picks up when the automobile goes national. And when people who not just wealthy people can afford it. It’s roughly contemporaneous with the Green Book. First edition, ’36; last edition, ’66. Really, you know, the issue of mobility and the African-American experience in North America is connected from the start. There’s no way to understand that story without understanding what mobility and race meant from the time slaves were involuntary moved here. Or involuntary kept in place. So it’s going to be very important to not just to go, “Well, this just appeared just like a genie from a bottle,” you know, in 1925 when cars become more readily available to black as to white Americans too.
You need to be able to understand that sure, we had Civil Rights in this country as a movement. Post-second World War, the ’50s, Brown v. Board of Education, the great steps forward in the 1960s, ’64, ’65. But there’s no African-American, male or female, who does not know what it means to have a special worry and special instructions… Gretchen Sorin’s son Greg works in my office. He got the talk from his dad. “Here’s what happens if and when you get stopped, and Greg, you’re going to get stopped. Keep your hands where they can see them. Don’t make any sudden movements, Greg.” Greg is 23; he was born in the 1990s. His father’s white, his mother’s black. I mean, this is an experience that is so current that that’s why we’ve chosen not to name the film “The Green Book,” but “Driving While Black.”
In the 1941 edition and apparently in other editions, occasionally, people were contributing first-person essays. And in the 1941 edition, the essay is by a guy who took a trip to New England and into Canada to Quebec. And there is astonishment at the kind, hopeful, and civil encounter that they have in their first-person account with the police and a corner of the street in Quebec. So there’s that in there too.
Race is the crucible of American history and we’re at another one of the crossroads. And we’re getting to know, “we” meaning non-black America, are getting to know in a more intimate way, what race and racism means. So the constitutional legal battles have been fought and at least in name, won. Now we’re moving to the areas of the economy, culture, the thoughts and feelings; the hearts and minds of human beings. That’s where there’s -- surprise, surprise—an enormous amount of work. And the confrontations are so painful. They just… We got a long way to go. And you know, the Green Book is kind of…enjoying a moment of public awareness.
I’m looking at the pages, it’s quite visceral.
It’s really visceral because …it’s where we all live. And so suddenly you realize what’s going on in plain sight. So it’s not some foreign vocabulary; it’s not happening somewhere else. It’s happening, you know… And it’s not a diner in a black-and-white 1960s civil rights kind of context.
You know it’s our experience and our parents’ experience and our grandparents’ experience. And doing this thing which is as American as apple pie: Getting in your car and going someplace. Whether it’s the afternoon or for the summer, or for a job, or to get away. And that right there in the middle of the open American road, we find these shadows and conflicts and really excruciating human circumstances.
Before the invention of modern concrete, travelers were able to cross muddy, swampy grounds by building “corduroy roads”—paths that were constructed of logs laid perpendicular to the direction of the route. While digging up a street in Michigan’s Grand Haven Township, a team of construction workers recently unearthed 100 feet of a corduroy road that dates to the Civil War era, as Brandon Champion reports for MLive.
The road was discovered beneath 168th Avenue, which is under redevelopment as part of an extensive “capital improvement plan.” According to the Grand Haven Township Facebook page, local officials believe that the road was built in approximately 1855, when the area was a logging town.
Corduroy roads, which get their name because of their resemblance to the linear fabric, are among the earliest types of manufactured thoroughfares, write M.G. Lay and James E. Vance in Ways of the World: A History of the World’s Roads and of the Vehicles that Used Them.
In 1755, the British Army under General Braddock “used significant lengths of corduroy construction” to build a wide road stretching from Cumberland in Maryland to Pittsburgh.
The soldiers aimed to use the road in their mission to recapture Fort Duquesne from the French. “[A]lthough construction of the road was successfully completed,” Lay and Vance write, “the military mission failed a few kilometers from the fort when a massive ambush destroyed the troop of 1, 459 men.”
Grand Haven Township officials already knew about another stretch of corduroy road lying beneath a nearby by street, but the one under 168th Avenue came as a “pleasant surprise,” Stacey Fedewa, community development director, tells Champion.
“We love finding our historical things here," she adds.
According to the Township Facebook page, the local government is now working with the Tri-Cities Historical Museum to preserve the centuries-old pathway.
Editor's note: Due to a mistake introduced in editing, this article incorrectly stated the date General Edward Braddock was authorized to build a miltary road. It was 1755 not 1775.
Back to school means back to books! And why not tote around your favorite tomes in a Color in a New Light tote bag? Through the Smithsonian Libraries exhibition Color in a New Light , visitors follow the theme of color through the collections and make a few unexpected connections and discoveries. Now, book lovers more »
On view in the National Museum of Natural History until March 2017, the exhibition Color in a New Light explores the theme of color through Smithsonian Libraries collections. Now you can take some vibrant color home with the Color in a New Light puzzle, produced with the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and manufactured by more »
“Call me Ishmael.” So begins Arena Stage’s current presentation of the play Moby Dick. But after that familiar line, this highly engaging production shrugs off tradition with strobe lights flashing, giant waves crashing and the audience swept up in a relentless sense of movement. The play has become an "experience" of life aboard the Nantucket whaler Pequod with Capt Ahab in pursuit of the white whale Moby-Dick.
Arriving at Arena from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and with an upcoming stop at South Coast Repertory in Cosa Mesa, California in January, Moby Dick is the product of a multidisciplinary group that received the 2011 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre.
Founded in 1988, the company is dedicated to creating original, story-centered theater through physical and improvisational techniques. For this production, playwright-director and founding member David Catlin was inspired by the challenge of transforming Herman Melville’s lengthy 1851 novel into a compact 21st-century production that reflects the pace and interaction demanded by today’s audiences.
As a faculty member of Northwestern University, Catlin calls himself a “theater-maker who acts, writes, directs and teaches.” Since Lookingglass was created, he has been part of more than 50 world premieres, and currently serves as the company’s director of artistic development.
Traditional “static theater” is dead-in-the-water to today’s theatergoers who are “used to interacting with multiple screens” and multitasking, says Catlin. So the idea for Moby Dick was to dramatically reimagine Melville’s classic seafaring tale, strip it of convention, and make it pulsate with bold acrobatics.
“We refer to the stage as the deck,” Catlin says, and “the people working back stage are the crew.”
He appreciates that theater has long been a primarily auditory experience. “In Shakespearean England, you wouldn’t go to see a play, you’d go to hear a play,” he says, referring to the rich language and iambic rhythms of Elizabethan theater.
While he respects that tradition, Catlin wants to experiment with a type of theater that people “can experience in other ways, too.”
Lookingglass continually innovates with a performance style that shapes an immersive audience environment. Their method incorporates music, circus, movement, puppetry and object animation, symbol and metaphor, and visual storytelling to create work that is visceral, kinesthetic, cinematic, aural and psychological.
The company collaborated with The Actors Gymnasium, in Evanston, Illinois, one of the nation’s premier circus and performing arts training centers. Actors tell their stories acrobatically, propelling themselves across a set designed as a ship’s deck. Filled with interlocking cables and rope riggings, the entire stage, or deck, is framed by arching steel-tubed pipes suggesting the curved ribs of a whale. The set, says Catlin, conveys the long connection between theater and ships—many of the mechanical elements used to move theatrical scenery are common to sailing, such as the block and tackle used to raise and lower curtains, and the use of rope lines.
This production of Moby Dick with its daring use of circus techniques plays to a shared history with the book’s origins.Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg, Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Emma Cadd as Fate in Moby Dick at Arena Stage. (Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company)
Herman Melville published Moby Dick in a decade that’s been called “the golden age of the circus.” The circus was considered America’s most popular form of entertainment in the mid-19th century, and master showman P.T. Barnum even established his American Museum as a proto-circus on Broadway, winning great notoriety by displaying such wildly diverse entertainments as “industrious fleas, automatons, jugglers, ventriloquists….”
While Melville never met Barnum, he was certainly aware of the circus and wrote about it evocatively in his short story “The Fiddler,” published anonymously in Harper’s in 1854. The story depicts a sad poet being cheered up by a friend who takes him to a circus: he is swept up by “the broad amphitheater of eagerly interested and all-applauding human faces. Hark! claps, thumps, deafening huzzas; one vast assembly seemed frantic with acclamation. . . .”
The stage audience experiences circus and movement, says Catlin, “in a visceral and kinesthetic and muscular way.” Some of the performers are circus-trained, adding authenticity to the aerial acrobatics displayed.
“The dangers of sailing and whaling are made that much more immediate,” he says, “when the performers are engaged in the danger inherent in circus.”Herman Melville's sixth and most famous novel, Moby-Dick was published in 1851. (Moby Dick, illustration by Rockwell Kent, Random House, 1930, NMAH)
Using movement to propel the art of storytelling is an increasingly popular theatrical approach. Earlier, modern dance pioneers occasionally incorporated a mix of artistic and theatrical ingredients; Martha Graham notably had a brilliant 40-year collaboration with sculptor Isamu Noguchi that resulted in 19 productions. A photograph of Noguchi’s “Spider Dress” for Graham is currently on display in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new exhibition, "Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern."
Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is contemporary ballet’s leading proponent of storytelling through movement, and has applied his flowing narrative approach both to classical ballet and to Broadway, where his production of An American in Paris won a 2015 Tony Award.
Perhaps the singular, most dramatic example of a company that tells stories through movement is the Synetic Theater in Arlington, Virigina, which is renowned for its fluid synthesis of innovative techniques for silent storytelling using only mime and movement.
Moby Dick has inspired countless adaptations: Orson Welles broadcast a 1946 radio version, Gregory Peck starred in a 1956 film, Cameron Mackintosh produced a 1992 musical that became a West End hit, and there was a 2010 Dallas Opera production that was a box office triumph.
The Lookingglass production of Moby Dick taps into the public’s continuing fascination for the classic novel with a grand and obsessive vengeance, but Lookingglass employs a more intimate approach.
The company creates a small-scale immersive theatrical experience that largely succeeds, although coherent storytelling in Act II sometimes loses out to vivid theatricality. The costume designs are highly imaginative—actors opening-and-closing black umbrellas seem perfectly credible as whales spouting alongside the Pequod, and the humongous skirt of one actor magically flows across the stage/deck in giant wave-like ocean swells.
Ahab’s doom is never in doubt, and we are there for every vengeful step. For David Catlin, the set’s rope riggings convey the play’s essential metaphor: the web they weave provides the “aerial story-telling” that connects Ahab to his fate, and the rest of us “to each other.”
Moby Dick is a co-production with The Alliance Theatre and South Coast Repertory. It will be in residence at Arena Stage through December 24, before heading to the South Coast Repertory in Cosa Mesa, California, January 20 through February 19, 2017.
A Smithsonian team of scientists re-examined a fossil sperm whale for the first time in 90 years and created an entirely new group in the […]
The post “Call Me Albicetus”: Fossil Sperm Whale Is Named in Honor of Moby-Dick appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.
Reconstructing the past isn’t easy, and it is even more challenging for events that date back millennia. This search for evidence can take researchers to strange places—and for anthropologist Emmanuelle Honoré and her colleagues, that meant measuring baby hands in a hospital.
Though the methods are slightly unusual, the researchers uncovered something curious: The tiny Stone Age handprints stenciled inside an Egyptian cave were likely not from small humans, but rather lizards, Kristin Romey reports for National Geographic.
Honoré and her team, who recently published their results in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, analyzed small handprints at Wadi Sūra II, a rock shelter in the Western Desert of Egypt. Discovered in 2002, the shelter is also known as “the cave of the beasts” after the menagerie of creatures depicted on its walls.
The sandstone cave is filled with mysterious paintings and markings that seem to pre-date animal domestication, including lots of outlines of human hands that are at least 6,000 years old. Among these handprints, 13 appear to be left by very small humans. These were the first such stenciled hands found in the Sahara.
But when Honoré looked at the paintings, she began to doubt that the handprints were tracings of Stone Age babies. So she teamed up with researchers to get measurements of newborns and pre-term babies at the neonatal unit of a French hospital. This comparison showed that indeed, the cave prints were not human.
Honoré then moved to other candidates, from monkeys to lizards. Ultimately, the lizards won.
“The most compelling comparisons are found among reptiles,” writes Honoré. Likely candidates include young crocodiles or desert monitor lizards—an animal that is well-represented in other Saharan rock art.
But the case isn't closed just yet. “We are not sure if we will get a definitive answer,” Honoré told News.com.au’s Debra Killalea, “but our first results are very convincing.”
The team speculates that the paintings may have included the prints of important religious or cultural symbols like the lizards. But Honoré doesn't want to speculate too much on the meaning, reports Romey.
"We have a modern conception that nature is something that humans are separate from," she tells Romey. "But in this huge collection of images we can detect that humans are just part of a bigger natural world."
Researchers may never know exactly what made the prints, but identifying them as reptile gives the cave of the beasts new meaning—and fresh intrigue.
In Greece, Cuba, and Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Angola and, now, in Syria, “arming the rebels” has been one of the U.S.'s go-to approaches to international relations. Yet according to an internal report from the CIA, that strategy is a bad one, says the New York Times.
In every instance but one, arming the rebels just didn't really work. And even when it does, says the Times, there can be some nasty aftereffects.
Let's say there's some conflict or struggle or insurrection that American leaders want to sway one way or another but don't want to actually get involved in—no boots on the ground. Since its inception 67 years ago, the CIA has offered a different option: the agency will arm and train the existing opposition. Yet in almost all cases, says the Times, arming and training rebel forces, rather than fighting alongside them, “had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict.”
The one time it did work, says the Times, was Afghanistan in the 1980s. But even there the local opposition wasn't working alone, and the goal wasn't to overthrow an existing leader but to wage a war of attrition against a larger Soviet army. The NYT:
“But the Afghan-Soviet war was also seen as a cautionary tale. Some of the battle-hardened mujahedeen fighters later formed the core of Al Qaeda and used Afghanistan as a base to plan the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. This only fed concerns that no matter how much care was taken to give arms only to so-called moderate rebels in Syria, the weapons could ultimately end up with groups linked to Al Qaeda, like the Nusra Front.”
If arming rebels does little to sway the outcome, that doesn't mean it's without risk. Last month, for instance, the House of Representatives gave the White House the go ahead to continue arming and training Syrian rebels. Around the same time, the Guardian wrote that some of the weapons currently being used by ISIS fighters were originally supplied by U.S. and Saudi Arabia to rebels fighting Assad in Syria.
Satire has long been used to expose human rights abuses—take Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” or this letter to a newspaper written over a hundred years later.
“Are Women Animals?” asked its writer, whose letter was published this month in 1872 in The Times of London. The writer, still known only as “An Earnest Englishwoman,” asked if women—who did not have remotely equal legal status with men under English law at that time—were even due the level of legal protection against cruelty afforded to animals.
By doing so, writes author Joanna Bourke in What it Means to be Human: Reflections from 1791 to the Present, the Earnest Englishwoman was “protesting against the fact that women were not being treated as fully human.” She wasn’t asking if women were biologically animals—the answer to that question was clear—but was using the example to highlight the cruelty towards women that she felt went often unpunished in a legal system designed to protect men’s property rights. Bourke writes:
Who, she asked, are entitled to the social and political rights assigned to ‘mankind’? How could it be just that animals had been granted more rights under law than women? She sounded exasperated. ‘Whether women are the equals of men has been endlessly debated’, she admitted, adding that it was a ‘moot point’ whether women even possessed souls. But, she pleaded, ‘can it be too much to ask [for] a definitive acknowledgment that they are at least animals?’
Women’s status under the law would improve if they were considered animals, Bourke writes—because they would be subject to the explicit prohibitions against animal cruelty that had been put into force earlier in the century, thanks to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The RSPCA was founded in 1824, almost 50 years before the Earnest Englishwoman’s letter. RSPCA members pushed for more animal welfare laws and sought to enforce existing laws. In doing so, that meant animals had an active advocate looking out for their welfare—something women did not have. The Earnest Englishwoman's letter, writes Bourke in a separate article, was prompted by real events:
Her fury had been fuelled by recent court cases in which a man who had “coolly knocked out” the eye of his mistress and another man who had killed his wife were imprisoned for just a few months each. In contrast, a man who had stolen a watch was punished severely, sentenced to not only seven years’ penal servitude, but also 40 lashes of the “cat.” She noted that although some people might believe that a watch was an “object of greater value than the eye of a mistress or the life of a wife,” she was asking readers to remember that “the inanimate watch does not suffer.” It must cause acute agony for any “living creature, endowed with nerves and muscles, to be blinded or crushed to death.”
Indeed, she wrote, she had “read of heavier sentences being inflicted for cruelty towards that—may I venture to say?—lower creation,” meaning animals.
The letter, Bourke writes, added to the ongoing conversation about the rights of sentient beings that helped to shape Victorian England and America. Indeed, a year later in America, the first successful court case against child cruelty was brought—by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Winston Churchill, British prime minister and one of history’s most influential statesmen, was undoubtedly a man with weighty questions on his mind. How best to save the British Empire? he must have mused. What will the postwar world look like? he surely wondered. But the legendary leader also focused his prodigious mind on less pragmatic questions. For instance: Is there life on other planets?
In fact, in 1939, Churchill penned a lengthy essay on this very topic, which was never published. Besides displaying a strong grasp of contemporary astrophysics and a scientific mind, he came to a breathtaking conclusion: We are probably not alone in the universe. The long-lost piece of Churchilliana has just floated up to the surface again, thanks to an article written by astrophysicist Mario Livio in this week's edition of the journal Nature analyzing Churchill's work.
“With hundreds of thousands of nebulae, each containing thousands of millions of suns, the odds are enormous that there must be immense numbers which possess planets whose circumstances would not render life impossible,” Churchill concluded in his essay. He wrote these words on the eve of World War II—more than half a century before exoplanets were discovered.
Until last year, Churchill's thoughts on the problem of alien life had been all but lost to history. The reason: His 11-page typed draft was never published. Sometime in the late 1950s, Churchill revised the essay while visiting the seaside villa of publisher Emery Reves, but the text still didn't see the light of day. It appears to have languished in the Reves house until Emery's wife Wendy gave it to the U.S. National Churchill Museum during the 1980s.
Last year, the museum’s new director, Timothy Riley, unearthed the essay in the museum's archives. When astrophysicist Mario Livio happened to visit the museum, Riley "thrust [the] typewritten essay" into his hands, Livio writes in Nature. Riley was eager to hear the perspective of an astrophysicist. And Livio, for his part, was floored. “Imagine my thrill that I may be the first scientist to examine this essay,” he writes in Nature.
Churchill did his homework, Livio reports. Though he probably didn't pore over peer-reviewed scientific literature, the statesman seems to have read enough, and spoke with enough top scientists—including the physicist Frederick Lindemann, his friend and later his official scientific adviser—to have had a strong grasp of the major theories and ideas of his time. But that wasn't what left the deepest impression on Livio.
“To me the most impressive part of the essay—other than the fact that he was interested in it at all, which is pretty remarkable—is really the way that he thinks,” Livio says. “He approached the problem just as a scientist today would. To answer his question 'Are we alone in the universe?' he started by defining life. Then he said, 'OK, what does life require? What are the necessary conditions for life to exist?'”
Churchill identified liquid water, for example, as a primary requirement. While he acknowledged the possibility that forms of life could exist dependent on some other liquid, he concluded that “nothing in our present knowledge entitles us to make such an assumption.”
"This is exactly what we still do today: Try to find life by following the water,” Livio says. “But next, Churchill asked 'What does it take for liquid water to be there?' And so he identified this thing that today we call the habitable zone.”
By breaking down the challenge into its component parts, Churchill ended up delving into the factors necessary to create what is now known as the “Goldilocks zone” around a star: that elusive region in which a life-sustaining planet could theoretically exist. In our own solar system, he concluded, only Mars and Venus could possibly harbor life outside of Earth. The other planets don't have the right temperatures, Churchill noted, while the Moon and asteroids lack sufficient gravity to trap gasses and sustain atmospheres.
Turning his gaze beyond our own solar system raised even more possibilities for life, at least in Churchill's mind. “The sun is merely one star in our galaxy, which contains several thousand millions of others,” he wrote. Planetary formation would be rather rare around those stars, he admitted, drawing on a then-popular theory of noted physicist and astronomer James Jeans. But what if that theory turned out to be incorrect? (In fact, it has now been disproven.)
“That's what I find really fascinating,” Livio notes. “The healthy skepticism that he displayed is remarkable.”
Churchill suggested that different planetary formation theories may mean that many such planets may exist which “will be the right size to keep on their surface water and possibly an atmosphere of some sort.” Of that group, some may also be “at the proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature.”
The statesman even expected that some day, “possibly even in the not very distant future,” visitors might see for themselves whether there is life on the moon, or even Mars.
But what was Winston Churchill doing penning a lengthy essay on the probability of alien life in the first place? After all, it was the eve of a war that would decide the fate of the free world, and Churchill was about to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Such an undertaking was actually quite typical for Churchill, notes Andrew Nahum, Keeper Emeritus at the Science Museum, London, because it reflects both his scientific curiosity and his recurring need to write for money. It was skill with the pen that often supported Churchill and his family's lavish lifestyle (recall that he won the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature, with a monetary award of 175,293 Swedish Kroner worth about $275,000 today).
“One recent biography is entitled No More Champagne: Churchill And His Money,” Nahum says. “That was a phrase he put into a note to his wife about austerity measures. But he didn't know much about austerity. He liked luxury so he wrote like crazy, both books and articles that his agent circulated widely.”
That’s not to say that Churchill was simply slinging copy about aliens for a paycheck. “He was profoundly interested in the sciences and he read very widely,” notes Nahum, who curated the 2015 Science Museum exhibition “Churchill's Scientists.” Nahum relates the tale of how as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Churchill was once sent a book on quantum physics, and later admitted that it had occupied him for the better part of a day that should have been spent balancing the British budget.
He not only read scientific content voraciously, but wrote on the topic as well. In a 1924 issue of Nash's Pall Mall Magazine, Churchill anticipated the power of atomic weapons. “Might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings nay, to blast a township at a stroke?” he warned. In 1932, he anticipated the rise of test-tube meat in the magazine Popular Mechanics: “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or the wing, by growing these parts separately in a suitable medium,” he wrote.
In 1939 he authored three essays, tackling not just extraterrestrial life but the evolution of life on Earth and the popular biology of the human body. Two were published during 1942 by the Sunday Dispatch, Nahum discovered when reading Churchill's papers at the University of Cambridge. It remains a mystery why his thoughts on alien life went unpublished.
In the rediscovered essay, Churchill admits that, because of the great distances between us and other planet-harboring stars, we may never know if his hunch that life is scattered among the vastness of the cosmos is correct. Yet even without proof, Churchill seems to have convinced himself that such a possibility was likely—perhaps by swapping his scientific mind for one more finely attuned to the human condition during the troubled 20th century.
“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,” he wrote, “or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”
Seventy-five years after Churchill's bold speculations, there's still no proof that life exists on other worlds. But, as was often the case, his analysis of our own still seems prescient.