Tim Riley, director and chief curator of the National Churchill Museum, delicately laid out six typewritten pages on a white board Wednesday morning — pages so old they are nearly translucent.
These fragile pages are part of an 11-page document that lives in a box in the museum's archives. Written in 1939 by Sir Winston Churchill, this essay is just now creating an international stir.
The essay begs the question: "Are We Alone in the Universe?"
"That's the biggest question there is," Riley said.
The National Churchill Museum was founded at Westminster College in 1969. The British statesman himself came to Westminster College in 1946 to give his Iron Curtain speech.
The essay and two others, written just before World War II, were included in several boxes of documents from the Reves collection. This collection was donated to the museum by Wendy Reves after her husband, Churchill's literary agent and friend Emery, passed away in 1981. Riley said he came across the essay in 2014 while curating for a Churchill art exhibition in St. Louis.
"It had been in the archives since the 1980s but hidden away," Riley said. "At the bottom of the pile, I found these essays and thought, 'These are a project for another day.' Today's the day."
Riley revisited the essay in July while officials at Westminster College were planning the 2016 Hancock Symposium, titled "Audacious Ingenuity: Pushing the Boundaries of Science."
One of the invited speakers was an Israeli astrophysicist of international acclaim, Mario Livio. Riley said he wanted to put the essay in front of Livio's eyes to see what he thought of it.
But first, Riley wanted to make sure the unpublished essay, along with the other two, were accurate.
"I shared this and two other 1939 essays with members of our science faculty," Riley said. "Were these not published because they were incorrect?"
The other two essays were about evolution and the mysteries of the body. The science professors studied the essays, according to Riley, and said they were, indeed, factual.
"So I asked Mario Livio to read this," Riley said, glancing at the original essay about universal life, clad in a plastic sleeve, on the table before him. "I wanted his take on it. He read it and he called me shortly thereafter and said, 'I want to write an article about this because I think Churchill's take on the universe was quite advanced.'"
Livio's article prints today in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Nature, which first published in 1869. Livio said the essay was riveting from the perspective of a scientist.
"My big take was that it was very impressive (Churchill) followed the thought processes of a scientist," he said.
In performing research on this topic, a skilled scientist would look at what life is and what conditions are necessary for life to be created and sustain itself, Livio said. That also was Churchill's approach, he added.
When Riley handed him a copy of the Churchill essay, he quickly scanned it, Livio said.
"I was very interested," he added. "When I got home, I read it in detail and came up with an idea to write an article."
Livio summed up Churchill's deduction.
"He basically said, 'I cannot believe that in all this vast universe, we are the only place where life has appeared,'" Livio said.
The whole essay carries an international copyright and will not be published in entirety.
Churchill said, "The odds are enormous that there must be immense numbers which possess planets whose circumstances would not render life impossible. If we are sufficiently self-centered and choose to deny that any of these support life, no one can prove we are wrong."
The final sentence of the essay is the one that makes Riley laugh, he said. It ends with these classic words from Churchill:
"But 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, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical developement (sic) which has ever appeared in the cast (sic) compass of space and time."
Riley said those words are so typical of Churchill's writing, and called the former British soldier and prime minister a "statesman scientist."
"For Westminster College and the National Churchill Museum this underscores the importance of the collection and our commitment to the study of Winston Churchill — but it goes beyond that," Riley said. "This underscores our study of liberal arts and that tradition was here before Churchill came."
A portion of the original essay will go on display this morning at the National Churchill Museum, which will open early for the event at 9:30 a.m. The museum is at 501 Westminster Ave. in Fulton.