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The Doomsday Clock is the gimmick we need to think about nuclear tensions

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‘We are failing to learn from the lessons of history as we find ourselves blundering headfirst towards a second cold war’

Video: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

The Doomsday Clock is now two minutes to midnight, as close as it’s ever been to the hour standing in for the apocalypse because of threats posed by nuclear weapons, climate change, and fake news. So, should we take the Doomsday Clock seriously?

The clock is a symbolic threat assessment made by a panel of experts at the nonprofit Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. They evaluate the likelihood of Armageddon and move the minute hand accordingly. This year, North Korea’s progressing nuclear weapons program, the unpredictable leadership of Donald Trump, and the disintegrating relationships between nuclear powers helped tick the clock 30 seconds closer to humanity’s extinction. “To call the world’s nuclear situation dire is to understate the problem, and its immediacy,” Bulletin president and CEO Rachel Bronson said in a briefing. And some are certainly worried by these predictions.

Physicists Lawrence Krauss and Robert Rosner of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists move the Doomsday Clock to 2 minutes to midnight.
Physicists Lawrence Krauss and Robert Rosner of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists move the Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight.
Image: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

“The events of the past year have only increased my concern that the danger of a nuclear catastrophe is increasingly real,” former Secretary of Defense William Perry said in a statement. The last time the clock reached two minutes to midnight was in 1953, after the US and the Soviet Union conducted back-to-back tests of hydrogen bombs. “We are failing to learn from the lessons of history as we find ourselves blundering headfirst towards a second cold war,” Perry said.

But others argue that the Doomsday Clock oversimplifies a complex web of risk. The constant danger of nuclear weapons, for instance, “never went away,” says Jeffrey Lewis, arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “Because of how Trump talks and acts, people are paying more attention to that danger that’s always been there.”

The clock’s origins trace back to the anxiety scientists and engineers felt after they built the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. To warn of the havoc their creations might wreak on the world, they created a newsletter that later became a magazine called The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Starting with the June 1947 issue, the Bulletin featured a clock on its cover that was designed by artist Martyl Langsdorf. Its ticking minutes signified the urgency of addressing the threats to humankind.

At first, the editor of the Bulletin was responsible for moving the minute hand. Now, it’s the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board — which includes 19 nuclear policy and cybersecurity experts, physicists, and environmental scientists — that makes the call. Each year, this group (the majority of which are men) meets to discuss the major threats facing humanity, and decide how to set the clock.

The process is informed but also somewhat arbitrary, which is why the Doomsday Clock can get a lot of flack. “Whenever Doomsday Clock time rolls around, I roll my eyes because the Clock doesn’t actually gauge anything measurable,” journalist Michael Lemonick wrote in 2016. “The various threats the Clock concerns itself with — nuclear war and climate change are the biggies — have completely different timescales.”

Scientifically calculating the risk of human extinction from the cornucopia of possible catastrophes can be a challenge, says Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh, executive director at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. “We’re talking about either very rare events, or potentially events that are entirely unprecedented in the history of this Earth, so there’s not a huge amount of data to go on,” he says. It’s especially difficult when those existential threats come from humans because we’re unpredictable. But still, the clock holds value because it’s updated based on “solid scientific and geopolitical analysis,” he says.

For Martin Pfeiffer, a graduate student studying nuclear anthropology at the University of New Mexico, the clock is a fitting metaphor given how the Cold War changed the way people thought about time. The threat of nuclear annihilation meant the future could disappear in a flash: depending on where they’re launched, intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, can reach their targets in a half hour or less. “There are no guarantees past an ICBM flight time,” he says. “So always have dessert. And pie.”

He looks at the doomsday clock as a kind of modern-day memento mori — a compelling, easily understood reminder that time is limited, he says. And so it can encourage people who don’t usually think about nuclear war to become more involved, call members of Congress, or join local organization groups to demand that the world never use these terrible weapons.

So yes, the clock’s a gimmick, but that’s pretty much how it was intended all along. “It’s a tool,” says Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University and member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. “For one day a year, there are thousands of newspaper stories about the deep, existential threats that humanity faces.”