Doomsday Clock

The Doomsday Clock pictured at its most recent setting of "two minutes to midnight"

The Doomsday Clock is a symbol which represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe. Maintained since 1947 by the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Science and Security Board,[1] the clock represents an analogy for the threat of global nuclear war. Since 2007, it has also reflected climate change[2] and new developments in the life sciences and technology that could inflict irrevocable harm to humanity.[3]

The clock represents the hypothetical global catastrophe as "midnight" and The Bulletin's opinion on how close the world is to a global catastrophe as a number of "minutes" to midnight. Its original setting in 1947 was seven minutes to midnight. It has been set backward and forward 23 times since then, the smallest-ever number of minutes to midnight being two (in 1953 and 2018) and the largest seventeen (in 1991). As of January 2018, the clock is set at two minutes to midnight, due to "the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change.”[4][5][6]

History

Cover of the 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists issue, featuring the Doomsday Clock at "seven minutes to midnight"

The Doomsday Clock's origin can be traced to the international group of researchers called the Chicago Atomic Scientists, who had participated in the Manhattan Project.[7] After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they began publishing a mimeographed newsletter and then the magazine, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which, since its inception, has depicted the clock on every cover. The clock was first represented in 1947, when The Bulletin co-founder Hyman Goldsmith asked artist Martyl Langsdorf (wife of Manhattan Project research associate and Szilárd petition signatory Alexander Langsdorf, Jr.) to design a cover for the magazine's June 1947 issue. As Eugene Rabinowitch, another co-founder of The Bulletin, explained later,

The Bulletin's clock is not a gauge to register the ups and downs of the international power struggle; it is intended to reflect basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age...[8]

Langsdorf chose a clock to reflect the urgency of the problem: like a countdown, the clock suggests that destruction will naturally occur unless someone takes action to stop it.[9]

In January 2007, designer Michael Bierut, who was on The Bulletin's Governing Board, redesigned the clock to give it a more modern feel. In 2009, The Bulletin ceased its print edition and became one of the first print publications in the U.S. to become entirely digital; the clock is now found as part of the logo on The Bulletin's website. Information about the Doomsday Clock Symposium,[10] a timeline of the clock's settings,[5] and multimedia shows about the clock's history and culture[11] can also be found on The Bulletin's website.

The 5th Doomsday Clock Symposium[10] was held on November 14, 2013, in Washington, D.C.; it was a day-long event that was open to the public and featured panelists discussing various issues on the topic "Communicating Catastrophe". There was also an evening event at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in conjunction with the Hirshhorn's current exhibit, "Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950".[12] The panel discussions, held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, were streamed live from The Bulletin's website and can still be viewed there.[13] Reflecting international events dangerous to humankind, the clock has been adjusted 22 times since its inception in 1947,[14] when it was set to "seven minutes to midnight".

Changes

"Midnight" has a deeper meaning to it besides the constant threat of war. There are various things taken into consideration when the scientists from The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists decide what Midnight and Global catastrophe really mean in a particular year. They might include "Politics, Energy, Weapons, Diplomacy, and Climate science."[15] Potential sources of threat included nuclear threats, climate change, bioterrorism, and artificial intelligence.[16] Members of the board judge Midnight by discussing how close they think humanity is to the end of civilization. In 1947, during the Cold War, the clock was started at seven minutes to midnight. The clock's setting is decided without a specified starting time. The clock is not set and reset in real time as events occur; rather than respond to each and every crisis as it happens, the Science and Security Board meets twice annually to discuss global events in a deliberative manner. The closest nuclear war threat, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, reached crisis, climax, and resolution before the clock could be set to reflect that possible doomsday.

Changing settings

The two tied-for-lowest points for the Doomsday Clock have been in 1953, when the clock was set to two minutes until midnight after the U.S. and the Soviet Union began testing hydrogen bombs, and in 2018, following the failure of world leaders to address tensions relating to nuclear weapons and climate change issues. In other years, the clock’s time has fluctuated from 17 minutes in 1991 to 2 minutes 30 seconds in 2017.[17][18] Discussing the change to 2½ minutes in 2017, the first use of a fraction in the clock's history, Krauss, one of the scientists from the Bulletin, warned that our political leaders must make decisions based on facts, and those facts "must be taken into account if the future of humanity is to be preserved."[15] In an announcement from the Bulletin about the status of the clock, they went as far to call for action from “wise” public officials and “wise” citizens to make an attempt to steer human life away from catastrophe while we still can.[17] In January 2018, the clock was lowered further to 2 minutes to midnight, meaning that the clock's status today is tied for closest to midnight since the clock’s start in 1947.[18]

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