A Brief History of the Doomsday Clock

doomsday clock
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In June 1947, almost two years after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs, the first issue of the magazine Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was printed, featuring a stylized clock on its cover. The clock displayed the time seven minutes to midnight, a symbolic representation of how close humanity was to destroying itself in a nuclear war, at least according to the judgment of the Bulletin's editors. Since then, the "Doomsday Clock" has been an ever-present fixture on the world stage, set back when nations behave reasonably, set forward when international tensions wax, a constant reminder of how close we are to catastrophe.

As you can probably infer from its title, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was created by, well, atomic scientists: this magazine started as a mimeographed newsletter circulated among the scientists working on the Manhattan Project, an intensive, four-year effort that culminated in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (The Bulletin is still published today, no longer in print form, since 2009, but on the web.) In the 70 years since its appearance, the mission of the Doomsday Clock has been slightly tweaked: it no longer refers specifically to the threat of nuclear war, but now signifies the likelihood of other doomsday scenarios as well, including climate change, global epidemics, and the unforeseen dangers posed by new technologies.

The Ups and Downs of the Doomsday Clock

One common misapprehension about the Doomsday Clock is that it's updated in real time, like a stock-market ticker. In fact, the clock is only changed after meetings of the Bulletin's advisory board, which happen twice a year (and even then, the decision is often taken to keep the time as it is). In fact, the Doomsday Clock has only been set forward or back 22 times since 1947. Here are some of the most notable occasions when this has happened:

1949: Moved up to three minutes to midnight after the Soviet Union tests its first atomic bomb.

1953: Moved up to two minutes to midnight (the closest the Doomsday Clock has ever reached this mark) after the U.S. tests its first hydrogen bomb.

1963: Moved back to 12 minutes to midnight after the U.S. and the Soviet Union sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty.

(One interesting side note: the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 started, and was resolved, in between meetings of the Bulletin's advisory board. One imagines that if the clock had been reset during these seven tense days, it would have displayed a time of 30 or even 15 seconds to midnight.)

1984: Moved up to three minutes to midnight as the Soviet Union is mired in war in Afghanistan and the U.S., under Ronald Reagan, deploys nuclear-tipped Pershing II missiles in western Europe. The international social fabric is further weakened by the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games and the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Olympic Games.

1991: Moved back to 17 minutes to midnight (the farthest away the clock's minute hand has ever been) after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

2007: Moved up to five minutes to midnight after North Korea tests its first atomic bomb; for the first time, the Bulletin also recognizes global warming (and the lack of firm action to counter it) as an imminent threat to civilization.

2017: Moved up to two and one-half minutes to midnight (the closest the clock has been since 1953) following Donald Trump's tweets touting the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the prospect of decreased legislative action to slow global warming.

How Useful is the Doomsday Clock?

As arresting an image as it is, it's unclear just how much of an effect the Doomsday Clock has had on public opinion and international policy. Clearly, the clock had more of an impact in, say, 1953, when the prospect of a Soviet Union armed with hydrogen bombs conjured up images of World War III. Over the ensuing decades, though, one can argue that the Doomsday Clock has had more of a numbing than an inspiring effect: when the world is constantly a few minutes from global catastrophe, and the apocalypse never quite happens, most people will choose to ignore current events and focus on their daily lives.

In the end, your faith in the Doomsday Clock will depend on your faith in the Bulletin's high-powered advisory board and its network of professional experts. If you accept the evidence in favor of global warming and are alarmed by nuclear proliferation, you're likely to take the clock more seriously than those who dismiss these as relatively minor issues. But whatever your views, the Doomsday Clock at least serves as a reminder that these problems need to be addressed, and hopefully soon.