Tag Archives: Winston Churchill

Recovered Essay on Extraterrestrial Life

Who comes to mind as a public figure who has written an essay on the possibilities of life on other planets?  Not a high school paper, but a fairly scientific essay that concludes, “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.”

Would you believe Winston Churchill wrote these words?

The essay written in 1939 reportedly has a strong understanding of contemporary astronomy and how scientists would approach the question of extraterrestrial life. It was found by Timothy Riley, director of the National Churchill Museum at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He recommended the essay to astrophysicist Mario Livio, who was thrilled to examine it.

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.

Astor: ‘Churchill, If I Were Your Wife…’

Perhaps you’ve heard this story about Sir Winston Churchill and Lady Nancy Astor, who apparently had a famous rivalry. Astor was the first woman to sit as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons (1919). Her Wikipedia page notes her quick wit and, though they are poorly documented, her trading of insults with Churchill. One rumored exchange says Churchill disliked her being in parliament, saying that having a woman there was like being intruded upon in the bathroom. Astor replied, “You’re not handsome enough to have such fears.”

A familiar anecdote has the viscountess in a disdainful state of her prime minister. She says, “If I were your wife, I’d poison your coffee.” Churchill replies, “If I were your husband, I’d drink it.”

Astor’s Wikipedia scholars attribute this quote, not to Churchill, but to his marvelously funny friend, Lord Birkenhead. I can’t suggest Birkenhead did not have this exchange, but I’m fascinated to learn that the insult is much older than he, Churchill, or Astor. The Quote Investigator, my new favorite website, reports the earliest recording of this joke comes from an 1899 Oswego, New York, newspaper. It was completely anonymous, being passed off as something the reporter overheard on the subway. The account was picked up by many newspapers, so by the time Birkenhead and Astor may have conversed, it would have been an old joke.

What’s more amusing is many people have claimed credit for it or given it to others. When Groucho Marx told the joke in 1962, he told it of George B. Shaw insulting a woman in his audience. In 1900, a comic named Pinckney claimed to have invented the dialogue a short time before the interview and that it had already worn itself out by flying around the world.

So if Lady Astor actually told Churchill or Birkenhead that she would poison them if they were married, she had plenty of opportunity to know she was setting herself up for a great joke.

Winston Churchill on Historical Fiction

In an article from April 12, 1902, reprinted in Popular Culture by David Manning White (found on Google Books), American novelist Winston Churchill comments on representing historical figures. The reporter asked him if he would present Daniel Webster, should he choose to, as he truly was, warts and all. Churchill replied, “I should consider it wrong to expose the weaknesses of a man like Webster because he is a historical ideal that should not be shattered. The same is true in regard to Hamilton; whereas, with a man like Aaron Burr, I should not hesitate to portray him exactly as he was as that would mean no loss to the historical ideal.” The editor who reprinted these comments was appalled and went on criticize public education.

What do you think of this view? Is there a historical ideal to maintain?

Winston Churchill, Party of Two

I was reading a book from 1900 that referred to a bestseller of the day, Richard Carvel by Winston Churchill. I said, as perhaps you are saying now, “Is that the Winston Churchill?” No, it isn’t. There was an American novelist named Winston Churchill (born in St. Louis in 1871) and when the British leader (born 1874 at Blenheim Palace) began writing books of his own, he was concerned about confusion with the American. The two men wrote each other to clear things up, like this:

Mr. Winston Churchill is extremely grateful to Mr. Winston Churchill for bringing forward a subject which has given Mr. Winston Churchill much anxiety.

Read one of the letters here. Here’s a bit more on Churchill, the novelist.