Doomsday Clock ticks towards nuclear midnight

Countdown: The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 to show the risk of humanity’s destruction.

Are things really so bad? Thanks to our world leaders, the ominous Doomsday Clock now reads “two minutes to midnight”. It is the closest Earth has been to apocalypse in 65 years.

1947. Two years since the physicist Alexander Langsdorf had been working on the Manhattan Project, a secret race to build atomic bombs in the USA. And two years since they had succeeded: the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still being rebuilt. The war was over.

But Langsdorf and a handful of his colleagues were nervous. Thanks to them, humanity had the power to destroy itself for the first time in history. And so they published the first issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists magazine, hoping to warn people about this grave threat.

Langsdorf’s wife, Martyl, designed its cover: the stark hands of a clock ticking towards midnight. There were seven minutes to go. When the USSR tested its own nuclear weapons two years later, the hands moved forwards. The Doomsday Clock was born.

The time is now set in January each year by a board of top scientists, including 15 Nobel prize winners. They base their decision on the risk of “existential threats” like nuclear war and climate change. And last week they made a harrowing decision: they set the hands at two minutes to midnight. It is the closest the world has been to Armageddon since 1953.

Why now? The threat of nuclear war, climate change and rapid advancements in technology. “The world is not only more dangerous now than it was a year ago; it is as threatening as it has been since World War II,” two of the Bulletin’s members wrote in The Washington Post. “To call the world nuclear situation dire is to understate the danger.”

The clock is only symbolic, of course: not even Nobel Prize winners can predict the future.

But scientists are not the only ones who are worried. Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, told The New York Times that the advance of the Clock is “obviously deeply concerning and worrying and reflects where we are today”.

Could we really be facing the end of the world?

Tick tock

No, insist some. The media are overreacting to the threat posed by climate change and the willingness of world leaders such as President Donald Trump and Korean leader Kim Jong-un to actually use their nuclear weapons. Do we really think things are worse now than during the Cuban missile crisis, when US and Soviet ships almost fired on each other?

Yes, respond others. The Cuban missile crisis was resolved thanks to the clear heads of the American and Soviet leaders, and the calm of the naval officers at sea. Trump and Kim are far more reckless. That “international diplomacy has been reduced to name-calling,” as the scientists put it, makes it impossible to know what might happen in a real crisis — and that sets the whole world on edge.

You Decide

  1. Do you trust our world leaders to steer clear of nuclear war?
  2. Is the Doomsday Clock a helpful way of understanding the world?

Activities

  1. Split into groups, and imagine you are in charge of the Doomsday Clock. Discuss what time it should be set to, and then explain your decision to the class.
  2. Look at the dates on the image above this article. Choose one which is not explained in the key, and research which historical events influenced the time that year. Write a report explaining your findings.

Some People Say...

“If there were observers on Mars, they would probably be amazed that we have survived this long.”

Noam Chomsky

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Every year the decision about whether or not to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors. Members of the board teach at top universities like Harvard and Oxford, specialising in subjects such as nuclear science, politics and environmental studies.
What do we not know?
Whether the actual risk of nuclear war has increased. While movement of the Clock is determined by a group of scientists, their decision is not actually based on a scientific process. Instead they come together to spend one day discussing the events of the year before, and their concerns about the risks which the planet faces. Eventually they come to a decision based on these discussions.

Word Watch

Manhattan Project
The research team employed more than 130,000 people and spent $2bn developing atomic bombs during the second world war.
Atomic bombs
Weapons which use the energy from nuclear fission (splitting atoms) to create an explosion. The first atomic bombs had the power of around 20,000 tons of TNT. Hydrogen bombs, developed later, use fusion (joining atoms) to release the power of 10 million tons of TNT.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The nuclear bombs dropped on the two cities instantly killed over 100,000 people. Thousands died later from the effects of radiation.
USSR
The Soviet Union, 1922 to 1991. It split into its constituent parts the most significant of remains Russia.
Climate change
In June 2017, Trump announced US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.
Technology
Advances cited by the scientists include recent worldwide computer hacks, development of autonomous weaponry, and possible misuse of new gene-editing tools.
Cuban missile crisis
For 13 days in October 1962, an American blockade around Cuba stopped Soviet ships from delivering nuclear missiles to the island.

Subjects

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