Scientists have just updated the Doomsday Clock. At 100 seconds to midnight, it’s now the closest it’s been to the apocalypse since the first tests of the hydrogen bomb in 1953.
“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,” the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists said in a statement Thursday, January 23, 2020. “The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.”
The reason for the move is pretty self-evident, but there’s another question you may have. What is the Doomsday Clock anyway?
The year was 1945, and the atomic bomb had just changed the boundaries of science forever. Like the advent of the gun and the crossbow and the machine gun, the atomic bomb changed the shape of warfare. Unlike anything before, it threatened to destroy the whole human race. And there was no way to measure or or explain the atomic bomb’s in comparison to more traditional arms. Eugene Rabinowitch and Hy Goldsmith, former Manhattan Project scientists, determined that a nontechnical magazine was needed to fully make the public aware of their dangers. They called it the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
“To say the Bulletin was founded on a shoestring,” the magazine would write in 1949, “would be to describe it as overdressed at birth.” The transition from government scientists working with a wartime budget to struggling magazine editors was not an easy one. The magazine started as a six page black-and-white newsletter, and by 1947 its publishers had come up with enough funds—by taking on debt and taking donations—to print a full issue.
To actually put the magazine out, Goldsmith turned to Martyl Langsdorf, the wife of fellow Manhattan Project veteran Alexander Langsdorf. Speaking to the History Channel for an episode of Modern Marvels, Langsdorf recalled that “he gave no instructions, except that it can’t cost much…All the scientists felt an urgency to explain what had happened with the bomb, and because of the extreme urgency, I remember, a clock seemed to be important.”
“The hands of the clock of doom have moved again,” wrote Rabinowitch in 1953. “Only a few more swings of the pendulum, and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western civilization.” Rabinowitch’s writing has a style of tension and doom fitting the atomic era, and the name stuck.
The clock is not updated on a set time frame, but rather as events dictate. In fact, this recent move is only the 22nd in the clock’s 70-year history. When Rabinowitch wrote those fateful words in 1953, he placed the clock at two minutes to midnight, the closest it’s ever been. It went backwards when the SALT and ABM treaties were signed in 1972, and then forward again in 1998 when both India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons. The clock moved as far back as 17 minutes in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, almost enough time to squeeze a TV show before the end of the world.
While the Clock will presumably always focus at nuclear weapons, this focus came about because, current publisher Rachel Bronson notes, in “1947 there was one technology with the potential to destroy the planet, and that was nuclear power.” The ways humanity has invented to destroy itself have multiplied since then, and in 2007 the Clock began to consider climate change as “a dire challenge to humanity.”
The Clock is one of the rarest things available to scientists: an easily recognizable icon that can grab a passerby with no scientific background. In short, it’s exactly what Rabinowitch and Goldsmith wanted.