Ask LH: What Is the Doomsday Clock and Why Are We Closer to Annihilation?

Ask LH: What Is the Doomsday Clock and Why Are We Closer to Annihilation?
Contributor: Stephen Johnson and Ky Stewart

I’m sure you’ve probably seen that atomic scientists have moved the ‘Doomsday Clock’ closer to midnight and annihilation.

The reason? Because of threats of nuclear war, disease and climate volatility have increased following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This means that, according to scientists, we are at greater risk of annihilation. How fun.

Due to these reasons, the clock was moved 90 seconds to midnight, 10 seconds closer than it has been in the past three years. If you’re wondering, midnight marks the theoretical point of no return.

Yeah, it’s not great news.

As such, we thought for this week’s Ask Lifehacker, we’d take a closer look at what this means, how the Doomsday Clock works and why we shouldn’t be too guided by it.

How does the Doomsday Clock work?

The Doomsday Clock is a symbol that illustrates the likelihood of a manmade global catastrophe. It was invented in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Originally set at seven minutes to midnight, the clock has now been changed 25 times, by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since its inception.

Its high point was in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when it was set at a reassuring 17 minutes to midnight. Since then, the clock has been edging relentlessly toward catastrophe, to its current “we’re all going to die” rating.

Obviously, now we’re even closer to supposed annihilation but don’t worry about the Doomsday Clock too much.

The clock’s measurement has always been arbitrary, and its purpose is political. What it actually “measures” has diffused so much over the last few decades, it’s hard to see the value in its reading at all.

I’m not saying don’t worry about the many potential ends of the world that the clock illustrates. I’m saying the Doomsday Clock itself is not a good way of understanding the likelihood or time frame of an approaching global catastrophe.

It’s like a Soviet propaganda poster: a relic of the Cold War interesting mainly as a curiosity.

The Doomsday Clock is a metaphor, not a measurement

When it began in the early days of the Cold War, the Doomsday Clock existed mainly to track and comment upon the political tension between the U.S. and the USSR, by far the two largest nuclear powers on Earth.

It was designed to “frighten men into rationality,” according to Eugene Rabinowitch, the first editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Since then, the “clock” has expanded to consider climate change and a host of other dangers like pandemics, cyber-attacks, disinformation and now the consequences of war.

A nuclear war between Russia and the U.S. would have likely resulted in the complete destruction of life on Earth in a few hours, a concept that was new to people in 1947. So the clock worked: It was a shorthand way of illustrating how political decisions from two empires affected the likelihood of everyone dying.

But the Cold War has been over for decades, and the dangers we face now are very different from the ones we faced in 1964.

Climate change is a looming catastrophe, but it won’t go down like a nuclear war and the host of other threats enumerated by the clock won’t (by themselves) result in the death of humanity in a way we could likely predict, so it’s fair to ask what the clock is meant to measure nowadays. The answer is not exactly clear.

“It’s not scientific,” Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and chair of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors explained to The New Republic.

“It’s a number that’s arrived at by a group of people who are exploring each of the questions, then having a huge amount of discussion, and ultimately a convergence on a number. And that number is frankly arbitrary. It’s not a scientific quantity.”

Even the first “setting” of the Doomsday Clock was arbitrary. Painter Martyl Langsdorf created the image for the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She went with a minimalist clock face and chose the time of seven to midnight herself because “It seemed the right time on the page…It suited my eye.”

The Doomsday Clock is not even a good metaphor on the most basic level. The defining characteristic of a timepiece is a hand moving inevitably forward to provide useful, objectively true information.

The Doomsday Clock’s hand moves in both directions and it provides nothing but an illustration of the subjective opinion of a small group of people.

Waking people up with a Doomsday Alarm Clock?

The purpose of the clock has always been to wake people up to the danger we face and the threat of possible annihilation.

As Krauss put it: “Scientists have a responsibility — which is the reason I’m involved in this — to try and alert the public to the realities of the world, and if you have use emotional tools to do it, you should…Whenever I write something popular, I don’t actually expect it to really be teaching that much.”

“What I expect to do is motivate people to want to learn. And in my mind, that’s what the clock does.”

But does the Doomsday Clock actually motivate people to want to learn? For me, it’s the opposite.

If I accept the idea that humanity is a hair away from its end and these scientists have “proven” it, I want to take a nap, not hear more about it. Or, as National Geographic put it: “If everything’s a crisis, nothing’s a crisis.”

History is rife with unintended consequences, so who is to say whether the political assessments of the scientists who changed the clock were even right? Geopolitical events that were seen as moving the hands in a positive direction could have actually been moving us closer to death and we have no way of knowing what would have happened had opposite decisions been made.

A softer stance by one of the superpowers in the 1960s would probably have moved the hands away from midnight, but it could have emboldened either the Soviets or the U.S. into thinking they might win a nuclear war. There just isn’t any way of knowing.

A new symbol for new times?

I believe a better symbol for our current situation might be a ring of hundreds of alarm clocks wired to explode when their alarms go off. All the alarms are set at different times, and we don’t know when any of them are scheduled to go off.

We are free to move the hands where we like, but only if we can convince/force enough other people to agree to change the time. If we do nothing, each one will explode. If we do something, we could avoid explosions if we don’t make any mistakes and we get very lucky.

But that’s just me. If you have another suggestion for a Doomsday Clock replacement and counting down our hours to annihilation, leave it in the comments.

If you’ve got a burning question that you need answering, send them to us, and we will answer it! Your question could be featured on the next Ask Lifehacker.

This article has been updated since its original publish date.

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