Can the Doomsday Clock Stop the End of the World?

On Jan 26th 2017, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to midnight — midnight being the end of the world. This is the closest it has been to midnight since 1953.

For 70 years, we’ve been using the Doomsday Clock to countdown the minutes until a hypothetical global catastrophe.

But the Doomsday Clock isn’t a clock at all. It’s a symbol. It represents our attempts to measure the dangers that threaten modern civilization and its existence has always been intricately synchronized with our own.

When they prepped the first nuclear bomb for detonation, many scientists at the Manhattan Project did not expect the device to work.

In theory, it should. Their calculations showed that a nuclear bomb could be possible. But nothing like it had ever been attempted.

So the decision was made to test the device.

With only enough plutonium enriched for a single bomb, the scientists only had one chance at this.

So in the early morning hours of July 16th 1945, the first nuclear weapon was detonated.

And in the fallout of that 20 kiloton explosion, it became clear that — like the plutonium inside the core of that bomb — human civilization had suddenly reached a critical stage.

For the first time in history, we became capable of destroying not only ourselves but wreaking planet-wide destruction on a scale never before possible.

While the idea of doomsday has been around for centuries, this was the first time the human race had technology to put it into practice.

So the question became: Now that we’ve made our extinction a quantifiable science, how do we measure it, and more importantly, how do we correct for it?

In 1945, a group of scientists who had worked on the bomb founded a newsletter called the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

They hoped to communicate the danger of nuclear weapons to the general public and advocate for their eventual abolition.

2 years later, the Doomsday Clock made its debut on the cover of this newsletter. Designed by Martyl Langsdorf — an artist and wife of one of those scientists involved in the Manhattan Project — the Doomsday Clock was meant to represent this singular moment in time and give us an instrument in which to gauge our proximity to global catastrophe.

It was set to seven minutes to midnight.

If the clock ever hit midnight, it would mean the end of civilization.

Obviously, that has never happened. But it has come close.

The clock has been adjusted 22 times in its history. Sometimes moving closer to midnight and sometimes moving backward. Sometimes staying the same.

The closest it ever approached midnight was in 1953. The US had just detonated the first thermonuclear weapon and the Soviet Union responded in kind.

Utilizing nuclear fusion — the same process that fuels our Sun — thermonuclear bombs or Hydrogen Bombs had explosive yields many times that of the fission type weapon that was tested only 8 years earlier.

Thus, the potential devastation of an all-out nuclear war between the superpowers had been increased immensely, and the prospect of nuclear annihilation became even easier to accomplish.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock’s hands to 2 minutes to midnight. Just 120 seconds from apocalypse.

Throughout the Cold War, the Doomsday Clock was adjusted multiple times in response to growing or lessening tensions between the world’s superpowers.

In 1963, the clock was set set 12 minutes from midnight after the US and Soviet Union signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty — limiting the type and number of nuclear weapon tests the nations could carry out.

But it wasn’t always in response to the actions of the US and Soviet Union. The clock was moved to 9 minutes from midnight in 1974 after India tested a nuclear weapon of its own.

Ten years later, the clock had moved all the way to 3 minutes to midnight after rising tensions between the US and Soviet Union intensified the nuclear arms race.

But the furthest the clock has ever moved from doomsday was in 1991.

With the fall of Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the potential for a nuclear conflict seemed to diminish and the Bulletin moved the clock hands a full 17 minutes back from midnight.

Although the threat of nuclear war has declined, nuclear weapons still exist and their proliferation has not stopped — making the possibility of a nuclear accident or nuclear terrorist event even more likely.

In recent years, the Bulletin has added global climate change to its assessment risk.

They judged that our use of fossil fuels and the continued increase of CO2 in the atmosphere represented an existential threat just as dangerous to human civilization as nuclear war.

While nuclear stockpiles have been decreasing, global temperatures and CO2 concentrations have been rising. And the likely destabilizing effects of global warming will only make the threat of their use even more of a possibility.

Emerging technologies, such as genetic engineering, cyber warfare, and artificial intelligence have also been incorporated into the Bulletin’s yearly assessment, and in the two decades since the end of the cold war, the Doomsday Clock has inched ever closer to midnight.

In January of this year, the Bulletin moved the clock 30 seconds closer to midnight.

It now stands at 11:57 and 30 seconds. Two and a half minutes to midnight.

Citing a worsening global security landscape, an inadequate response to climate change, and the continued modernization of current nuclear stockpiles, the Bulletin judged that the course we are on is bringing us ever closer to doomsday.

The dialogue the clock itself was meant to foster seems to be in jeopardy. The irresponsible rhetoric and grandstanding surrounding the use of nuclear weapons and the escalating disregard for scientific consensus has led to a global atmosphere choked with nationalistic blustering and misinformation.

In such a murky political environment, the very purpose of the clock begins to malfunction.

Unlike a real clock, the Doomsday Clock doesn’t run on gears or batteries. It doesn’t depend on the rotation of the Earth or our position around the Sun. There is no internal timing mechanism. No machinery at all.

The adjustments necessary to avoid global cataclysm won’t happen automatically.

Because the Doomsday clock runs on us

We are its pendulum.

In the United States, our democracy is representative. Like the Doomsday Clock, our leaders and elected officials are symbols. They represent us.

Their rhetoric and their laws are ultimately synchronized with the intent of their constituents. Our leaders are beholden to us just as much as we will be held culpable for any steps they take that influence the clock.

While the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists might make the announcement, whether we swing deeper into darkness or wind back from the brink, depends completely on us.

So whether we are a group of concerned scientists or a nation of concerned citizens doesn’t matter.

The hands of the Doomsday Clock are in our hands.

What the Doomsday Clock really represents is not how close or far we are from the end of the world. It shows us how much of an impact we can have on the future of our civilization. How through proper and thoughtful guidance, we can drive the intricate mechanisms of our world and sway the pendulum of history in our favor.

In the 70 some years since we tested the first nuclear bomb, we have not only multiplied the means by which we could destroy ourselves, we have refined our ability to identify and mitigate those threats.

There’s no way to know what the Doomsday Clock will read next year. But there’s one thing we can be certain of: It won’t reach midnight. In fact, we can rest assured that the Doomsday Clock will never reach midnight.

Because if that ever happened, there would be no one left to influence the clock.

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