Doomsday Clock Ticks Louder, But Who’s Listening?

By Michael D. Lemonick

This just in! The Doomsday Clock has just moved one tick closer to midnight. It now stands at a mere five minutes before the hour, and we all know what that means.

OK, maybe we don’t. I took an informal poll of friends and family, and their response, more or less, was: “The what?”

The Doomsday clock's hands have been adjusted twenty times since its inception in 1947. Credit: adesigna/flickr.

It’s kind of sad, really. Back in the day, the DC really meant something. It was invented in 1947 by the directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists  — a magazine founded just two years earlier by Manhattan Project scientists who were horrified by what their newly invented atomic bomb had done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Clock was intended to show, in graphic form, just how dangerous nuclear war really was, and it was initially set at seven minutes to midnight—midnight being the end of the world, more or less.

At the time, it seemed to make a lot of sense. The Bomb really was terrifying, and when the USSR exploded its first nuclear weapon in 1947, and its first H-bomb, in 1953, it got even scarier. The nuclear-arms race had begun, and world destruction was a very plausible scenario.

Even then, though, the Doomsday Clock wasn’t much of a precision timepiece. When the little hand moved from seven minutes before midnight to three in 1947, and then two in 1953 did that mean we were nearly three times as close to annihilation? And if so, how exactly did the Bulletin measure it? The answer is that they didn’t: a group of eminent physicists sat around a table and came up with a number that sounded pretty darned good to them. The Eminent Group was a lot more worried than they had been, but not incredibly worried. “Incredibly” might have translated into one minute to midnight, and “super duper incredibly” — 30 seconds, maybe?

Or something like that. Over the years, the clock has moved nearer and farther from the Hour of Doom — two minutes was the closest, 17 the farthest (it happened in 1991, when the Cold War was clearly and finally over).

In 2007, the Clock people decided to diversify their litany of doom: they added climate change to nuclear weapons as a second major threat to the world. “A dire challenge to humanity,” they called it, as they nudged the clock down from seven minutes to midnight to five. It went back up to six in 2010, thanks to small but hopeful signs about nuclear weapons reduction and what were called “pockets of progress” on climate change. And now, as the result of a symposium held on Monday of this week it’s at five again.

Nuclear weapons and climate change are indeed major threats, if not to the survival of humanity, at least to a reasonably safe and secure life for billions of humans. But so are population growth, and toxic chemicals, and (maybe) nanotechnology and plenty of other things. Why do the Clock people leave those out?

Not that it matters, though, since nobody pays much attention to the Clock anymore, and those that do don’t necessarily take it with the solemnity and respect it’s meant to inspire. “Few of the Bulletin's recommendations of 2010 have been taken up,” says the organizations latest press release, plaintively. That just emphasizes the lack of impact the Doomsday Clock really has.

It’s kind of like the Pope declaring, “We must have world peace.” You can’t blame the guy for trying, but nobody expects it to have much effect. It’s also a bit like the Carbon Counter, a huge electronic billboard installed with great fanfare on one of New York’s busiest intersections back in 2009 to drive home just how much heat-trapping CO2 we’re pumping into the atmosphere. The idea was that people would be appalled when they saw the numbers scrolling by, and would demand that something be done.

That hasn’t worked out so well, either.