The Doomsday Clock is the fateful brainchild of a group of atomic scientists who worked on the first nuclear weapons.
The concept is pretty simple – the closer the minute hand is to midnight, the closer the world is to Armageddon.
From “Doctor Who” episodes to “Smashing Pumpkins” songs, the Doomsday Clock is the most recognizable and lasting icon of nuclear danger in popular culture.
Since 1947, the clock has moved backward and forwards – from seventeen minutes to midnight in 1991 and two minutes to midnight in 1953.
The minute hand of the clock has been stuck just a midnight snack away from global apocalypse for decades.
The Doomsday Clock was nearly a “U”
Scientists regularly produced a bulletin about nuclear weaponry and the clock was originally just an illustration for the cover of the first bulletin. The first time was set at seven minutes before midnight because the artist, Martyl Suzanne Schweig Langsdorf, liked the look of it.
According to Kennette Benedict, the Bulletin’s executive director, the clock was almost a “U”, the chemical symbol for uranium. Langsdorf realized that a clock better conveyed the urgency of the looming nuclear dangers.
She set the original Clock at seven minutes to midnight because, she said, “it looked good to my eye.”
While it’s only a virtual clock, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists keep one as a prop…of Doom!
The Doomsday Man
For the first 20 years, one man decided had his hand on the doomsday clock – Eugene Rabinowitch (1901-1973). A scientist himself, fluent in Russian, and a leader in the international disarmament movement, he was in always in communication with scientists and experts within and outside governments all over the world. Based on these discussions, he decided where the clock hand should be set and explained his thinking in the Bulletin’s pages.
After his death, the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board took over the responsibility and has since met twice a year to discuss world events and reset the clock as necessary.
The board is made up of scientists and other experts with deep knowledge of nuclear technology and climate science, who often provide expert advice to governments and international agencies. They consult widely with their colleagues across a range of disciplines and also seek the views of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, which includes 16 Nobel laureates.
It’s purely a judgment call by very smart people, many of them scientists. It’s an activity of scientists, but it’s not necessarily science.
The Worst of Times
The most dangerous time in global history was 1953 when the clock was at Two minutes to midnight.
The Bulletin set the hands at 11:57 in 1949 as the Soviet Union’s testing of an atomic bomb signaled our impending doom.
But it was in 1953 that scientists warned leaders of the world were playing with fire.
“Only a few more swings of the pendulum, and, from Moscow to Chicago atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western civilization,” the Bulletin warned when they announced the clock had moved and the world was just two minutes from midnight.
As diplomatic solutions briefly quelled the threat of a nuclear apocalypse in the late 1950s, the group rolled back the hands of the clock and by 1963 the planet was considered to be relatively “safe” at 12 minutes from doom.
The Best of Times
The doomsday clock was turned back to the furthest point from midnight in history in 1991— 11:43 — when the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
This was the first treaty to provide for deep cuts to the two countries’ strategic nuclear weapons arsenals, prompting the Bulletin to set the clock hand to 17 minutes to midnight. The Bulletin declared: “The illusion that tens of thousands of nuclear weapons are a guarantor of national security has been stripped away.”
The time they choose—17 minutes to midnight—requires the minute hand to be moved to a position outside the portion of the Clock depicted on the original design. The change symbolizes the relief of surviving 45 years without a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The quiet only lasted for so long as the early 2000s ushered in what the Bulletin described as a “new nuclear age” and the clock began ticking forward again.
This Clock goes backward
Adjustment of the Doomsday Clock does not come from a single event, no matter how positive or negative. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bulletin did not adjust the Clock, but by the next year, the growing threat of terrorism led the US to discuss withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
This, plus global terrorism and the war in Afghanistan led to an adjustment from nine minutes up to seven.
Similarly, even the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 did not cause a shift in the clock. Instead, over the next year, it led to a new treaty limiting nuclear tests in the atmosphere, and this caused the minute hand to move backward.
Dangers the Bulletin consider include killer robots, the escape of lethal pathogens from laboratories and Ebola and other zoonotic diseases that ‘threaten humanity.’
In 2014, the Bulletin made a statement: “And beyond the nuclear and climate threats lies a spectrum of emerging dangers—from cyber weapons to killer robots—that are further challenging humanity’s ability to manage its most advanced technologies”
The wonderfully named Campaign to Stop Killer Robots was launched in April 2013 with the objective of achieving a ban on the development, production, and deployment of lethal autonomous weapons.
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, physicist Stephen Hawking and other tech luminaries have signed an open letter warning against the dangers of starting a global arms race of artificial intelligence (AI) technology unless the United Nations supports a ban on weapons that humans “have no meaningful control over.”
The risks, the signatories say, could be far greater than those posed by nuclear weapons.
After debating it for a decade, the Bulletin added climate change into the machinations of the Clock in 2008. Specifically, they added the earth-threatening dangers posed by climate change and rapid developments in the life sciences and other emerging technologies.
As the clock was moved 2 minutes closer to midnight, The Bulletin stated :”We foresee great perils if governments and society do not take action now to render nuclear weapons obsolete and prevent further climate change.”
Meaning of Midnight
Since the dawn of the nuclear age, midnight has stood for nuclear annihilation, but things got more complicated in 2007 when “Doomsday” was expanded to include non-nuclear disasters, such as irreversible climate change.
The Bulletin’s stated reason was to enable the Clock to be used to address the urgency of acting sooner on climate rather than later, and the Clock was advanced 2 minutes, from 7 to 5 minutes before midnight. It was a move that was given high publicity by renowned cosmologist, and Bulletin board member, Stephen Hawking, who said:
“As citizens of the world, we have a duty to alert the public to the unnecessary risks that we live with every day, and to the perils we foresee if governments and societies do not take action now to render nuclear weapons obsolete and to prevent further climate change.”
Clock is Stuck
The hands of the Doomsday Clock were moved to three minutes before midnight on January 22, 2015, marking the direst setting of the Clock since 1983, at the height of the Cold War.
Last year’s Doomsday Clock was stuck at 3 minutes to midnight due to “unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals”, all of which apparently posed “an extraordinary and undeniable threat to the continued existence of humanity“.
“The decision not to move the hands of the clock in 2016 is not good news,” Lawrence Krauss, who chairs the Bulletin’s board of sponsors, said in announcing the new clock setting. They acknowledged the gathering threats posed to world order over the last year by Islamic State and cyberwarfare.
The scientists noted that the 11.57pm setting was one of the worst since the clock’s inception.
Reset 21 times
Since its creation at the dawn of the nuclear age, the Clock has been reset 21 times. The first change was in 1949, after the Soviet Union successfully tested its first atomic bomb. Rabinowitch reset the clock from seven minutes to midnight to three minutes to midnight.
The Bulletin has moved the Clock hand away from midnight almost as often as it has moved it toward midnight, and as often during Republican administrations in the United States as during Democratic ones.
The only time that it ever moved as close as two minutes to midnight was 1953. That was after the United States and Soviet Union both tested fusion weapons, or “H-bombs”, within nine months of one another.
We are currently at 3 minutes to midnight. Or should we say 3 minutes to the end of the world?
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.