If you’ve never heard of the Doomsday Clock, you’re not alone. It isn’t a clock that predicts time or doomsday events directly, it is more of a visual metaphor devised by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to measure and analyze the danger of a “civilization-threatening technological catastrophe.”
Once a year the board meets in an attempt to measure international threats, mostly nuclear and climate change, but they analyze data collected and then decide where on the clock, the minute hand should rest – in relation to midnight, or the number twelve.
The closer the minute hand is to midnight, the closer the world is to doom.
“As always, new technologies hold the promise of doing great good, supplying new sources of clean energy, curing disease, and otherwise enhancing our lives. From experience, however, we also know that new technologies can be used to diminish humanity and destroy societies,” the board wrote. “We can manage our technology, or become victims of it. The choice is ours, and the Clock is ticking.”
Ironically, the Doomsday Clock, invented by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, is a publication that began with some of the researchers who worked on the atomic bomb. Since then the Bulletin’s scientific board, which includes Professor Stephen Hawking and 18 other Nobel laureates, has been changed 18 times.
The wife of one of the original researchers, Martyl Langsdorf, a painter, illustrated the first Bulletin cover, which featured the Doomsday Clock that was set at 11:53 pm in 1947.
Although Langsdorf died in March 2013, her creation lives on. In January 2012, the Bulletin’s board set the minute hand of the clock at 11:55 p.m., one minute closer to midnight than last year. The decision was made based on the current state of nuclear arsenals around the globe as well as accidents such as the Fukushima nuclear meltdown that occurred in 2011 after a major earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Biosecurity is also taken into account, with the creation of an airborne strain of H5N1 flu that worried scientists in 2012.
This year it remains at five minutes to midnight due to complicated relations between the U.S. and Russia, both with massive nuclear weaponry. Also because of the political asylum that Russia offered NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, which prompted President Obama to cancel a summit with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. That summit was designed to discuss plans on shrinking nuclear arsenals, according to the Bulletin.
Also, climate change efforts are struggling and stalling, warned the Bulletin. Commitments are wavering with the U.S., European Union and Australia, in committing to renewable energy as well as Japan – who has backed off promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The closest the Doomsday Clock has ever come to midnight was in 1953, when the minute hand ticked to 11:58 p.m. after the first test of the hydrogen bomb. It was at its least doomed in 1991, when the Bulletin board set the time at 17 minutes to midnight as the Cold War ended.
Since 1991, however, the clock has been ticking gradually toward doom, as it became clear that total nuclear disarmament would not be happening.
Image via L.A. Marzulli’s Blog