This article was originally published on January 20, 2022.
It’s almost midnight and more than 75 years have passed.
That is if you are telling time by the Doomsday Clock, which of course is not a real clock. It is a warning to humanity, a metaphorical countdown to existential midnight, the end of the world as we know it.
Created by the non-profit organization Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the idea behind the clock is to remind the general public, politicians and other scientists “how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making”, and to encourage discussions and ideas about reducing man-made threats to our own extinction, according to the organization’s mission. Every January, Bulletin the decision makers gather to announce the new clock setting, if there is one (sometimes there isn’t).
Setting and resetting the doomsday clock
When The Doomsday Clock was first conceived in 1947, nuclear weapons are the technology of greatest concern to Bulletin (whose founders include Manhattan Project alumni). Over time, issues other than nuclear war helped inform the organization’s interim deliberations. in 2007, for example, climate change first played a role in setting the hands (five minutes to midnight). Recently, Bulletin citing COVID-19 a pandemic as a new factor in determining clock setting.
However, these anxious hands have not always marched inexorably towards doom. Over the years, Bulletin has moved the hands vice versa several times, often in response to improved superpower relations, as evidenced by arms reduction treaties. In 1991, the hands were 17 minutes to midnight, the farthest they have ever been, thanks to the end of the Cold War and the signing of START contract between the United States and the Soviet Union.
By 2020, however, Bulletin had set the clock forward 100 seconds to midnight—as close as those metaphorical hands ever got to 12. To reinforce his point, Bulletin timekeepers left the hands of the clock unchanged in 2021, thanks in part to the pandemic. In a statement at the time, Bulletin noted that “the mishandling of this serious global health crisis is a ‘wake-up call’ that governments, institutions and a misguided public remain unprepared to deal with the even greater threats posed by nuclear war and climate change.”
On January 20, 2022, the watch’s 75th anniversary, Bulletin the Science and Security Board elected to keep the hands at 100 seconds to midnight for another year, citing factors such as the ongoing pandemic; the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Iran, China and North Korea; ongoing climate issues; and state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, among others. “The members of the Science and Security Board believe that the world is no safer than it was at this time last year,” said Rachel Bronson, Bulletin president and CEO, announcing this year’s timing at a press conference.
Watching the guards
Over the decades, the Doomsday Clock has become a macabre element in popular culture, referenced in many songs, movies, comics and other places. Its annual settings are attended with a kind of wry enthusiasm—a bit like Groundhog Day if Punxsutawney Phil were the harbinger of nuclear winter never to come again.
Critics of the watch – and there are a lot, prevalent in both the political and scientific landscapes—dismiss the whole concept as fear-mongering theater, not something you’d expect from an organization created by scientists. Historically, opponents have also taken Bulletin to task for its methodology in clock calibration, which is seen as imprecise, difficult to quantify and even capricious. (Detractors of the clock like to point out that the original 1947 setting, seven minutes to midnight, was chosen only because its original designer, artist Martil Langsdorff, thought it “looked good to my eye.”)
Still, supporters and Bulletin itself argues that the clock is an iconic metaphor, “a reminder of the dangers we must face if we are to survive on the planet,” according to the website.
Meanwhile, whether you want to keep an eye on it or not, the doomsday clock is ticking, still closer to midnight than it’s ever been, but (hopefully) never quite there.