July 11, 2017

The Doomsday Clock that started to tick in 1947, has grown into a powerful symbol, and a wake-up call to political leaders and policy makers. The clock measures humanity’s risk of facing global calamity, and is published in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

doomsday clock
Credit: XKCD

The Atomic Age dawned with mushroom clouds which left two crumbling cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and more than a million people dead in their wake. The two big nuclear bangs which ended World War II in 1945 led to a new, more destructive way to wage war.

It signalled the beginning of a nuclear arms race, which continues even today. World leaders concentrated on test firing nuclear warheads in a grotesque show of strength, ignoring the use of atomic energy for good

Scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, which had led to the creation of the nuclear bombs, were riddled with guilt with the consequences of their discovery. They started The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1945, a non-technical journal, to educate common people about the potential of atomic power and the drastic consequences of a nuclear war, and to influence global nuclear policies.

With contributors such as Albert Einstein, J Robert Oppenheimer and others, The Bulletin quickly grew in credibility and readership, but failed to slow down the arms race. As the Soviet Union started testing its own nuclear missiles, alarmed scientists started the Doomsday Clock.

Created by artist Martyl Langsdorf, the Doomsday Clock originally represented the threat of a global nuclear war. The clock now reflects climate change and new scientific and political developments which might put the world in imminent danger of war. The hypothetical catastrophe is referred to as “midnight” and The Bulletin’s opinion of how close we are to destruction is given as “a number of minutes to midnight”.

Its original setting in 1947 was seven minutes to midnight. Since then, it has been set backwards and forwards 22 times.

So, what is the time now?  

Physicist Lawrence Kraus (left) & former US Ambassador Thomas Pickering announce the 2017 Doomsday Clock. Credit: Getty Images
Physicist Lawrence Kraus (left) & former US Ambassador Thomas Pickering announce the 2017 Doomsday Clock. Credit: Getty Images

In 2017, The Bulletin declared that it was two and a half minutes to midnight, the closest we have been to doomsday since the 1950s, with good reason too.

The number of nuclear weapons has dropped to around 10,000 globally in 2017, but it is still enough firepower to destroy civilization as we know it. New nations such as North Korea and Iran are entering the race. Combating climate change and loss of biodiversity has become difficult, especially with the US backing out from the Paris Accord. Added to this is the global rise in strident nationalism and increase in race/religion fuelled violence.

The Doomsday Clock enjoins “wise public officials” to act immediately and guide humanity away from the brink. “If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”  


Text by: Subhalakshmi Roy

Image Source: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Featured Image: The first Doomsday Clock on the cover of the 1947 edition of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Credit: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists