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What is the Doomsday Clock?
The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic clock face, representing a countdown to a possible end-of-world, represented by the clock striking midnight, from a global catastrophe such as a nuclear war or climate change. It is a design that aims to warn us about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making. It represents an analogy for the threat of nuclear war, climate change and technological developments that could inflict irrevocable harm to humanity.
What do the hands of the clock represent?
The hands or the time setting of the clock do not hold any significance as such. It is the relative distance of the hour hand from the midnight time setting that denotes how grave the current world situation is. For instance, moving the clock hands to a time setting of 11:57 i.e. four minutes to midnight from previous setting of say 11:54 (six minutes to midnight), owing to some global superpowers having successfully tested a nuclear device would mean we are moving closer to a global catastrophe (i.e. closer to midnight)
Who created the Doomsday Clock?
The origin of the Clock can be traced to the cover page of a bulletin published by an international group of researchers called the Chicago Atomic Scientists. Since its inception, the Clock has been depicted on every cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Its first representation was in 1947 when bulletin co-founder Hyman Goldsmith asked artist Martyl Langsdorf (wife of research associate Alexander Langsdorf, Jr.) to design a cover for the magazine’s June 1947 issue, the first issue published in a magazine rather than a newsletter.
As Martyl listened to the scientists passionately debate the consequences of the new technology and their responsibility to inform the public, she felt their sense of urgency. So she sketched a clock to suggest that we didn’t have much time left to get atomic weapons under control. Martyl set the original Clock at seven minutes to midnight because, she said, “it looked good to my eye.”
Who decides what time it is?
In the early days, Bulletin Editor Eugene Rabinowitch decided whether the hand should be moved. A scientist himself and a leader in the international disarmament movement, he was in constant conversation with scientists and experts within and outside governments in many parts of the world. Based on these discussions, he decided where the clock hand should be set and explained his thinking in the Bulletin’s pages.
When Rabinowitch died in 1973, 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. They also seek the views of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, which includes 16 Nobel laureates.
What is the current time setting of the Clock?
When did Clock hand first move?
After the Soviet Union successfully tested its first atomic bomb in 1949, Rabinowitch reset the clock from seven minutes to midnight to three minutes to midnight.
When were the hands set closest to midnight?
In 1953, the minute hand was moved to two minutes to midnight after the United States and the Soviet Union each tested their first thermonuclear weapons within six months of one another.
When were the hands set farthest from midnight?
In 1991, with the end of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, 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.
Where can I visit the Doomsday Clock?
There is no physical Doomsday Clock. Click on the clock face at the top right of the Bulletin homepage for an interactive timeline of the clock’s history and the reasoning behind each resetting.
It seems as though the Clock trying to predict the future. What expertise does the Board have in forecasting?
The Doomsday Clock is not a forecasting tool. Our Science and Security Board tracks numbers and statistics—looking, for example, at the number and kinds of nuclear weapons in the world, the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the degree of acidity in our oceans, and the rate of sea level rise.
The Bulletin is a bit like a doctor making a diagnosis. We look at data, as physicians look at lab tests and x-rays, and also take harder-to-quantify factors into account, as physicians do when talking with patients and family members. We consider as many symptoms, measurements, and circumstances as we can. Then we come to a judgment that sums up what could happen if leaders and citizens don’t take action to treat the conditions.
The Bulletin has been moving the Clock hand back and forth for 68 years and we haven’t blown ourselves up. Is there really that much to fear?
As long as nuclear weapons exist and can be used, the risk that we could destroy civilization also exists. Such a calamity has not occurred because national leaders have so far heeded warnings and because at critical times in the past 70 years, they have set up communication channels with adversaries, negotiated treaties to control the weapons and engaged erstwhile enemies in cooperative projects. Preventing nuclear war requires continued diplomacy, more exchanges of information, and open communications that engender trust.
Likewise, as long as Earth’s climate continues to change, we are at risk of suffering the potential consequences, in particular, disruptions in the environment—such as extended droughts, changes in growing seasons, sea level rise, and fisheries die-offs—that threaten human survival.
Humans invented both nuclear weapons and the fossil-fuel powered machines that contribute to climate change; we know how they work, so we can find ways to reduce or eliminate the harm. But we need concerted cooperation worldwide to prevent calamity.
What can we as ordinary people do to meet the challenges that the Doomsday Clock is warning about?
First, get smart about the problems. Nuclear weapons and climate change may seem to be outside our daily experience, but we all have a stake in avoiding untimely death. We want to live our lives free from destruction by nuclear weapons and from the growing scarcity of natural resources brought about by a warming planet. This should motivate us to learn as much as we can about the powerful technologies that could destroy our way of life.
Second, share what you’ve learned with others—in your family, workplace, school, or social media feeds. The more we talk to each other about what matters most—surviving and flourishing—the more confidence we’ll have about expressing our interests.
Third, tell your government representatives that you don’t want even more of your tax money spent on nuclear weapons or on subsidizing carbon dioxide-producing fossil fuel technologies. Write letters, email their offices, and let them know that your security depends on getting rid of nuclear weapons and on finding ways to keep our planet habitable for humanity.