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

What is the Doomsday Clock?

Doomsday is one of those evocative words that paint a very vivid picture. As we define doomsday: “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 been moved up to just 100 seconds 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. The clock was created in 1947 just after humanity had entered the Nuclear Age after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. (That year, the bulletin was first formed by a group of scientists and engineers who participated in the Manhattan Project, which developed those weapons.) Their symbolic clock was first set at seven minutes to midnight.

Why is the Doomsday Clock now set at 100 seconds?

In 2018, the clock was notably moved to two minutes to midnight for the first time in its history. Now, 2020 marks another milestone: the clock has been set at 100 seconds, just under two minutes, to metaphorical doomsday.

According to official statement from the Bullet of the Atomic Scientists:

Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.

The statement specifically cites international retreat from arms control agreements, an insufficient global response to an increasingly threatened environment, and the growing dangers of information warfare and other disruptive technologies, such as deepfakes.

Another notable change to the time on the clock was 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.

WATCH: What Does "Existential" Mean To You In 2019?

How often does the clock change?

The Bulletin group is not in the prognostication business where ultimate cataclysm is concerned. The academics, including many Nobel Laureates, that run the Clock don’t update it in real time. They meet twice a year to assess world events, not forecasting events but tracking data (e.g., how many nuclear weapons there are in the world, the level of carbon dioxide in the environment) and assessing the response to these threats (e.g., citizen efforts, global agreements).

But, for as doom-and-gloom as the Doomsday Clock can be, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists always suggests meaningful action. As they conclude in their 2020 statement:

Citizens around the world have the power to unmask social media disinformation and improve the long-term prospects of their children and grandchildren. They can insist on facts, and discount nonsense. They can demand—through public protest, at the ballot box, and in many other creative ways—that their leaders take immediate steps to reduce the existential threats of nuclear war and climate change.

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