The scientific pursuits of wartime prime minister Winston Churchill and King George III can teach today’s scientists about the importance of life outside work, reports David Payne.
In October 1939 Britain was just weeks into its prolonged fight against fascism and Nazi Germany when Winston Churchill, then part of the wartime Cabinet, penned an essay about alien life. Astrophysicist Mario Livio’s analyis of the lost essay, published in Nature last month, garnered global media coverage. According to physics professor and science writer Graham Farmelo, the lost essay reveals a “dazzzling scope of inquiry” that shows he was an “even greater public figure than we thought.”
Farmelo, writing in The Guardian (one of hundreds of media outlets to cover Livio’s article) further proves his point by alluding to a Sunday in 1926 when, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Churchill took some time out from preparing his budget to dictate a summary of quantum theory. “Can anyone seriously imagine any political leader today using their downtime to brush up on their understanding of string theory?” Farmelo asks.
Churchill isn’t the only public figure whose legacy is being reappraised as a result of their scientific inquiry. Until last month, George III was famous only for being Britain’s “mad king,” the country’s longest serving male sovereign, father of 15, and the monarch who “lost us America” in 1776.
The digitisation of George’s 350,000 page archive includes detailed drawings and calculations he made for the transit of Venus on 23 June 1769. He witnessed the event he witnessed from his specially commissioned observatory in Richmond Park, and accurately predicted its recurrence in 1874 and 2004. Oliver Urquhart Irvine, Royal Librarian and Assistant Keeper of the Queen’s Archive, describes letters he wrote to court astronomer William Herschel complaining about the cost of building his telescope. “He’s not just dallying in a subject and half understanding it, he’s really getting to grips with it,” Irvine tells The Telegraph newspaper. Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, initially named it “Georgian star” (Georgium sidus), after his royal patron.
George’s best known pastime before his “digital outing” as a scientific thinker was agriculture, earning him the nickname “Farmer George.” In Churchill’s case it was art. He painted more than 500 pictures over 48 years, many of them in Morocco, a favourite holiday destination, and Chartwell, his country estate just outside London.
The private hobbies of these very public figures (science, farming, painting, writing) provide lessons for scientists. And they would doubtless earn the approval of Robert Lechler, head of the UK Academy of Medical Sciences. Lechler and his academy colleagues are keen on outside interests to help unleash workplace creativity and have launched a campaign #MedSciLife, to celebrate the importance of an ideal work life balance.
Lechler says: “It is the Academy’s view that time outside of work has the potential to nourish creativity, build resilience, and give fresh perspectives on existing problems, precisely the skills that result in the best quality research. A life outside science is not an extra, but an integral part of who we are as scientists.”
Paul Martin, Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Bristol and a fellow of the Academy (pictured above), adds: “I find science pretty stressful and so I have several hobbies to ‘escape’ work; my pals who I fish with for bass, or at my Kung Fu club have no idea what REF or an impact factor is – and this is very good!”
Creative writing seems to be a favourite pastime. Last month Nature Careers examined how creative writing can enrich scientists’ research. Susan Moran interviewed neuroscientist David Eagleman about his recent forays into fiction, and molecular biologist Gaia Bistulfia about her blogs and novels aimed at young adults and which explore eating disorders, sexuality, and drug abuse.
Churchill would probably have enjoyed the company of Eagleman, Bistulfia and Geoffrey Benford, the astrophysicist whose early novels, written more than 30 years ago, anticipate the arrival of the computer virus and ecological disaster. The wartime leader counted science fiction writer H G Wells as a friend, and according to Cambridge historian Richard Toye, was a closet science fiction fan.
In 1901 Churcill told Wells: “I read everything you write.” Indeed “The Gathering Storm”, the phrase used by Churchill to describe the rise of Nazi Germany, was used in The War of The Worlds, first serialised in 1897.
David Payne is chief careers editor, Nature.