Doomsday Clock tipped to inch closer towards annihilation scenario as threat of war looms

Doomsday Clock tipped to inch closer towards annihilation scenario as threat of war looms

01/20/2022

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Today, the Doomsday Clock will be unveiled for the 75th time. We will find out what way the panel from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will move the minute hand. For the past two years it has been stuck at 100 seconds to midnight — midnight being the point at which humanity faces hypothetical global catastrophe.

In its history, the clock has been moved backwards and forwards 24 times, the farthest being 17 minutes to midnight in 1991, the nearest being today’s 100 seconds.

With Russia poised to attack Ukraine, many, like Julian Borger, a Washington-based journalist, note that it is “hard to imagine the clock being set back ‒ and that means that the experts assess we are in greater danger now than ever.”

The clock was birthed in 1947 and can be traced back to a group of international researchers called the Chicago Atomic Scientists, who took part in the Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first nuclear weapons.

They began publishing a mimeographed newsletter which later became the magazine, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which depicted the Clock on every cover.

Eugene Rabinowitch, a co-founder of the Bulletin, summed up what the clock meant at the time: “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.”

The closest the clock came at the height of the Cold War was two minutes to midnight in 1953 after the first detonation of a thermonuclear warhead, a hydrogen bomb.

It would remain extremely close to midnight throughout the Cold War period, with American nuclear chemist, Harrison Brown, in 1962 — the climax of the Cuban missile crisis — setting out what would be an apocalypse-predicting guest editorial in the Bulletin: “I am writing on a plane en route from Los Angeles to Washington and for all I know this editorial … may never be published.

“Never in history have people and nations been so close to death and destruction on such a vast scale. Midnight is upon us.”

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But shortly after his words went to print, the Bulletin decided against moving the hands any closer to midnight, at this point being seven minutes to.

This was because the shock of near catastrophe had given the US and Soviet Russia the incentive towards risk reduction and controlling arms.

The farthest the clock has ever been from midnight was 17 minutes, right at the end of the Cold War period, in 1991.

It has slipped back towards extinction ever since, however.

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This, experts say, is for a number of reasons: increasing volatility of geopolitics, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the increased threat of climate change, which only made it into the clock’s calculation in 2007.

At first, the Clock was not going to be a clock at all; rather, the scientists had floated the idea of basing it on a U for Uranium, but soon dismissed the idea for something more urgent.

Martyl Langsdorf, an artist whose husband Alexander was a physicist, took the imagery of countdowns and rocket launches and put them into a clock, something everyone could relate to.

Rachel Bronson, the Bulletin’s current president, told The Guardian that the original time on the clock of seven minutes to midnight “conveyed urgency, but also hope, a sense that there’s something we can do about it”.

She added: “We can set it back. And all of that in an image that is not language-dependent.”

The Clock certainly cut through and left the dense nature of science behind it, since breaking into mainstream culture and featuring in Cold War novels, Doctor Who, music by The Who and Iron Maiden.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson even referred to it in his speech during the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, though wrongly said it was at a minute to midnight.

Rachel Bronson, the Bulletin’s current president, told The Guardian that the original time on the clock of seven minutes to midnight “conveyed urgency, but also hope, a sense that there’s something we can do about it”.

She added: “We can set it back. And all of that in an image that is not language-dependent.”

The Clock certainly cut through and left the dense nature of science behind it, since breaking into mainstream culture and featuring in Cold War novels, Doctor Who, music by The Who and Iron Maiden.

It is important to note that the Clock is not asserting that the apocalypse is definitely near.

Neither is it saying that global thermonuclear war is definitely imminent, or that climate change will kill us very soon.

It is instead a warning from scientists that those things could happen if things do not change soon.

You can watch the 2022 Doomsday Clock announcement live on Thursday at 3pm here.

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