Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock Is Now At 75 Hours And Threats To Civilization Still Abound
Langsdorf’s design started out as an entire clock face, but quickly scaled it down to the last 15 minutes of the hour. It apparently never occurred to Langsdorf that publishers might one day want to pull that minute hand well below the 45-minute mark. Never mind: world events have only once raised this happy dilemma. In 1991, after the United States and the Soviet Union signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START 1) and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the clock briefly fell to 17 minutes to midnight.
As catchy as the title is, the clock didn’t earn its “apocalypse” moniker until relatively recently. For decades it was simply known as the atomic clock. The first known references to the Doomsday Clock did not appear in newspapers until 1968, and the Newsletter officially adopted the name in 1972.
The reviews of the Newsletter and its scary clock have dismissed it as a political stunt, or even a counterproductive message that doesn’t help the public and policy makers. If everything is a crisis, then nothing is a crisis.
Some, like science writer Charles Mann, are generally not fans of doomsday scenarios. “In the history of the human species, has a human heart ever been deeply moved by a graphic? he asked in a 2014 article on environmental doomsayers.
Mecklin says the doomsday clock was always meant to be an alarm clock — and from a group of scientists who had a clear agenda against nuclear weapons. Co-founder Goldsmith was one of 70 scientists who wrote a joint letter to President Harry S. Truman urging him not to use the atomic bomb against Japan. (They were too late: the letter did not reach Truman until after Hiroshima.)
Among the first national publications to go fully digital, the Newsletter stopped printing copies of the magazine in 2008. Yet the iconic clock appears on every digital issue and at the top of the Atomic Scientists web page.
Drumbeat of crises
As I was going through back issues of the Newsletter, each track bristling with reminders of my childhood in the 1960s, spent in the shadow of a mushroom cloud: “Nuclear Blast Effects” (1961). “The Bomb in China” (1964). “Bedlam’s Politics” (1963). I vividly remember scrutinizing a map, printed on the front page of our suburban New Jersey newspaper, depicting concentric circles of destruction from a notional atomic bomb dropped on the Empire State Building (and sighing with relief from find that the outermost circle did not cross my city, but the city next door).
For many of us, that 1960s fear of falling nuclear weapons has long since been diluted by a drumbeat of later crises. It’s almost like we’re becoming comfortable skating on the fringes of Armageddon.
“Nobody wants to carry around, every day, all the time, the idea of a nuclear threat,” he says. “When you stop to think of all the false warnings that almost resulted in nuclear war, when you think of all the times luck saved humanity, it’s scary.”
Resetting the doomsday clock every January, he says, gives the whole world permission to watch the nuclear threat humming, like a transformer behind an electric chair, with ominous persistence. “If there is a nuclear war, then any other issues you may have won’t matter.”
And so, Mecklin and his colleagues stubbornly play the role of the biblical prophet of bad news Hosea, preaching a warning of doom to a distracted, if not disinterested, people.
So, all together now:Happy birthday to youuuuu…” And hope that only the candles will be blown out.