100 Seconds to Doomsday

By: Hannah Pell

On 23 January 2020, the Doomsday Clock was calibrated to 100 seconds before midnight — the closest it has even been — by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the organization in charge of the clock. Because the Doomsday Clock is set no sooner than annually, this decision was made even before the COVID-19 outbreak could be taken into consideration; the idea that humanity is now more than ever closer to widespread disaster than even before the pandemic is certainly a chilling one.

What is the Doomsday Clock, and why is it important? It turns out that it is rooted in the history of modern physics, as a product of 1940s nuclear physicists’ shared concerns about the potential destructiveness and widespread threats of their very new science. However, its lasting impact is as a catalyst for public debate about the complex yet integral roles of science in society.

Eugene Rabinowitch and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS SPEAK UP, reads a headline from an October 1945 issue of Life Magazine. The article was co-authored by David Hill, Eugene Rabinowitch, and John Simpson, nuclear physicists who all had been involved in the Manhattan Project, the secret research effort to develop nuclear weapons which culminated in the atomic bomb. In the immediate shadow of the Second World War and after, the shocking and horrific demonstration of nuclear capabilities proved that even the consequences of theoretical physics are intricately intertwined with global politics and conflict. These physicists sought to effectively communicate the risks of the science that they themselves were responsible for to the public. 

Atomic scientists, including the authors of the article. Image Credit: Life Magazine.
“The scientists do not aspire to political leadership but having helped man to make the first step into this new world [of nucleonics], they have the responsibility of warning and advising him until he has become aware of its perils as well as its wonders,” they wrote.

In December of 1945, two months after the Life Magazine article appeared, Eugene Rabinowitch (pictured above) founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, alongside fellow University of Chicago and Manhattan Project physicist Hyman Goldsmith. Since its establishment, the organization and its eponymous magazine have served as a medium for scientists to directly engage in political issues by contributing non-technical but scientifically sound information about nuclear weapons and other global security issues. “[It’s about] managing the dangerous presents provided by Pandora’s box of modern science,” Rachel Bronson, the current executive director of the organization, said in an interview.

1947: The Doomsday Clock Starts Ticking
Two years later, in 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published their first magazine issue. The cover featured an image of a clock (shown below), designed by artist Martyl Langsdorf, who was married to a Manhattan Project research associate. She thought that setting the clock to seven minutes before midnight would “convey a sense of urgency,” but also said that “it looked good to [her] eye.” So the original time standard on the clock was, in fact, quite arbitrary. Nevertheless, the Doomsday Clock was born.

“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,” Eugene Rabinowitch later wrote. 

The cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ first issue in 1947. 

Image Credit: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Timekeeping Considerations: Nuclear, Climate Change, and Disruptive Technologies
Initially, continued nuclear threats were the biggest factor for deciding the time on the Doomsday Clock. The last instance the clock was set to approximately two minutes before midnight was in 1953 (shown below), after the United States and the Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs in the early years of the decades-long Cold War. In 1991, when the Cold War finally ended and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed, the Doomsday Clock was moved back to 11:43pm — 17 minutes before midnight — the furthest away it had and has ever been.

“Never before has the [Science and Security] Board of Directors moved the minute hand so far at one time. Conceived at the dawn of the Cold War, the clock was designed with a 15-minute range. … A consensus was reached reflecting a conviction that the world was changing in fundamental and positive ways,” the 1991 statement reads, which is titled “A New Era.”

The time according to the Doomsday Clock. Image Credit: Physics World.

Although nuclear weapons remain a threat (in 2019 there were near 13,900 nuclear warheads in the world) the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has started incorporating compounding and simultaneous crises in recent years. Starting in 2007, the Science and Security Board decided to include the threat of climate change in their deliberations, which Bronson described as “probably one of the most controversial decisions” they had made regarding the clock. Disruptive technologies, including the rampant spread of misinformation, genetic engineering, and synthetic biology, have since become the third major pillar on which the Doomsday Clock time is determined.

Is it time to panic? Not quite.
The timeline above paints a bit of an ominous picture; since 2010, we’ve been inching closer and closer to midnight. “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,” according to the 2020 Doomsday Clock Statement. 

Modern design of the Doomsday Clock. Image Credit: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 

It’s important to remember, however, that the Doomsday Clock is only one of many metaphors and predictors forecasting the end of the world. Its significance is not necessarily in its accuracy, but in its long history as a symbol that frames conversations between physicists, politicians, and the public at-large about technologies that impact our daily lives and how we can effectively take action toward a safer, more peaceful future.

In anticipation of the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty’s potential expiration in February 2021, a Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction has organized with support from the American Physical Society. The Coalition’s website includes an excerpt from Albert Einstein’s 1946 letter to the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists: “We scientists recognize our inescapable responsibility to carry to our fellow citizens an understanding of the simple facts of atomic energy and its implications for society.”

The Doomsday Clock is a recurring reminder that, unlike the tides of history, we do have the power to rewind.

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