Tick, Tock: What Is The “Doomsday Clock?”

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What is the Doomsday Clock?

Doomsday is one of those evocative words that paint a very vivid picture. As our definition states, “the day of the Last Judgment, at the end of the world; nuclear destruction of the world; given to or marked by forebodings or predictions of impending calamity; especially concerned with or predicting future universal destruction.” As you can see, it’s about as bottom line as it can get. Other words associated with doomsday are just as expressive, like Armageddon and apocalypse.

With that said, the “Doomsday Clock” has (unfortunately) been in the news of late. Its hands have moved to two minutes to midnight, which metaphorically means that the planet is about as close to global disaster as it ever has been. (Midnight = we’re in serious trouble.) The very fact that such a thing has existed for so long means that mankind has teetered on the precipice of disaster for quite awhile now. So, what exactly is this thing, and how did it gain this status as a symbol of our collective impending doom?

The Doomsday Clock (there is no physical clock, BTW) is run by a group of people who produce an academic journal called the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It was started in 1945 after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by a group of scientists and engineers who would go on to create the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. CNN.com says that artist Martyl Langsdorf drew the portrayal of the clock that was featured on the group’s magazine back in 1947, with the hands set to seven minutes to midnight. “Like the countdown to an atomic bomb explosion, it suggested the destruction that awaited if no one took action to stop it.” The Bulletin website also mentions she set it to seven minutes because “it looked good to (her) eye.”

Why is the Doomsday Clock now set at two minutes?

The Atlantic points to words from President Donald Trump and Russia leader Vladimir Putin as the specific reason for the clock move. “The scientists of the Bulletin specified that they were taking the action out of specific concern for the words of two men: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Not in the 70-year history of the clock had rhetoric from so few individuals so affected the movement of the clock, they said.” (Nuclear football, anyone?)

The Bulletin’s statement about the time change reads, in part, “It is now two minutes to midnight—the closest the Clock has ever been to Doomsday, and as close as it was in 1953, at the height of the Cold War.”

Some other notable changes to the time on the clock are when it advanced 30 seconds in 2017. The furthest it has been from midnight was 17 minutes back in 1991, as the Soviet Union fell apart. It’s been reset a total of 23 times (and counting) since 1947. Here’s a nice animation of how the clock has moved forward and backwards over the years.

How often does the clock change?

The Bulletin group is not in the prognostication business where ultimate cataclysm is concerned. The academics that run the Clock don’t update it in real time. (It was never updated during the 1960s Cuban Missile Crisis, for example.) They meet twice a year in June and November to assess world events.

On their official site, they state: “The Doomsday Clock is not a forecasting tool, and we are not predicting the future. Rather, we study events that have already occurred and existing trends. 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 board also takes account of leaders’ and citizens’ efforts to reduce dangers, and efforts by institutions—whether of governments, markets, or civil society organizations—to follow through on negotiated agreements.”

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