How The Doomsday Clock Works

How The Doomsday Clock Works

Yesterday the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists pushed the Doomsday Clock forward to two minutes from midnight. The last time the Bulletin got this grim was in 1953, after the US and USSR tested their first hydrogen bombs.

Image by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

What’s the Doomsday Clock?

Since it began in 1947, the Doomsday Clock has become the best-known measure of humanity’s risk of global catastrophe. Until 2007, it only tracked the danger of nuclear weapons; since then it’s also incorporated the effects of climate change.

Who sets the clock?

The 19 members of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, including national security experts, physicists, climate scientists, a public health expert and a cybersecurity expert; and the Board of Sponsors, including 15 Nobel laureates. Each year the Bulletin decides whether to move the clock or leave it as-is. (Until 1973, the Bulletin’s editor set the clock.)

How has the setting changed over time?

The clock was set at seven minutes to midnight in 1947, kind of accidentally – it was originally just a cover design for the Bulletin, and artist Martyl Langsdorf said this setting “looked good to my eye”.

In 1949, when the USSR tested its first atomic bomb, Rabinowitch moved the hand to three minutes to midnight. Since then the Bulletin has changed the setting 22 times. The high mark was 17 to midnight, set in 1991 after the US and Russia signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The low mark is two to midnight, reached in 1953 and again today.

How The Doomsday Clock Works
Image by Fastfission

Image by Fastfission

Why did it change this time?

In yesterday’s announcement, the Bulletin blamed rising tensions between the US and Russia, the US and North Korea, and the US and China.

The announcement also mentions the continuing arms race between India and Pakistan, and Iran’s quest for nuclear capability.

The announcement further discusses the persistent threat of climate change and even references fake news and election tampering, as they degrade the public’s ability to push for sane nuclear and climate policy.

How do we push it back?

The Bulletin has some ideas! They listed several bullet points, and we’re slightly paraphrasing them here but:

  • Trump should calm the hell down.
  • The US government should open up “multiple channels of communication”, which sounds a lot like “go behind the administration’s back”.
  • China should step up and whip North Korea into shape.
  • The US should stop being so dramatic about Iran.
  • The US and Russia talk.
  • None of this nuclear garbage matters if the US, and everyone else, keep pumping carbon into the air.
  • The “international community” should find a way to make people believe facts again, because Facebook sure won’t.
  • Nobody make any Terminators or new Ebolas please

The announcement ends with the reassurance that we could all step away from the brink of destruction, if we just somehow magically stop doing all the bad things we’re doing.

For more answers, read the Bulletin’s Doomsday Clock FAQ.

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