What is the Doomsday Clock? And what is the current time shown by it?

The Doomsday Clock indicates how close we are to the threat of nuclear annihilation. The idea for the clock was conceived by researchers that are members of an international group called the Chicago Atomic Scientists, which is founded by individuals who were involved in the Manhattan Project that is created to build nuclear weapons.

The clock first appeared in a magazine named Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947, which was two years after the United States had used two nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. The atomic scientists developed the imaginary clock in order to illustrate the threat of destruction that will be caused by nuclear weapons.

The first iteration of the Doomsday Clock found in the magazine was drawn by Martyl Langsdorf, the wife of Manhattan Project physicist Alexander Langsdorf, Jr and an artist by profession. When asked why she decided to draw a clock to signify the impending doom for humanity, Martyl Langsdorf stated that the clock would emphasize the urgency of the problem, since it acts like a countdown that may cause panic among ordinary people and may urge world leaders to go into action to stop the movement of the clock. The clock would later be redesigned in January 2007 by Michael Bierut, a graphic designer and board member of the Bulletin, to make it easier to see how close we are to doomsday.

On the clock, the time of midnight is the indicator that we are already in the event of destruction. When the clock first appeared, the scientists had set the time for it at seven minutes before midnight. Over the years, the clock has been adjusted numerous times based on the advancement of nuclear weapons in several countries or the agreements to limit or ban them from being developed.

Many people believed that the arms of the clock came closest to “doomsday” was two minutes until midnight. This close call happened in 1953, shortly after the United States and the Soviet Union tested their hydrogen bombs. The farthest the minute hand in the clock has ever been from striking the hour of midnight was in 1991, right when the Soviet Union and the United States signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which limited the production of weapons in both countries. After the treaty was signed, the scientists moved the clock to read 17 minutes until midnight.

In the late 1990s, the clock indicated 14 minutes to midnight, but the 1998 testing of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan, neighboring countries that were long at odds with each other, resulted in the clock being forwarded by five minutes, making the clock read nine minutes before midnight. The series of bombs tested by these countries were the Pokhran-II (for India) and Chagai-I (for Pakistan). The tests were not merely demonstrations to see if the bombs would work, as it is also a way for the two countries to showcase their strengths in case a war between them occurs. Fortunately, the aggression building up between the two countries simmered down in the early 2000s.

Today, the looming environmental disasters like the runaway greenhouse effect are also taken into account to determine how close humankind is to doomsday, as many researchers believed that there are other ways that the world will experience a total catastrophe besides nuclear weapons.

The only year when the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock moved backward was in 2010 when a number of countries started meetings to discuss the reduction of nuclear weapons that they have in storage. A new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, appropriately nicknamed New START, was signed by the United States and the Russian Federation. The treaty successfully reduced the number of nuclear weapons that both countries have in their arsenal.

Because environmental disasters are also considered to affect a change in the Doomsday Clock, The United Nations Climate Change Conference held in 2009 also contributed to the reduction of time before midnight in 2010. The conference aimed to discuss the repercussions of carbon emissions to the atmosphere, as well as the limitation of the world’s rise in temperature by 2 degrees Celsius.

Since 2012, the minute hand came closer and closer to midnight, and in 2020, it is indicated that we are 100 seconds to doomsday. The threat came from the leaders of the world failing to communicate about the creation of nuclear weapons in powerhouse countries like the United States, Russia, and North Korea. In addition, one can also blame it on the rising tensions between Iran and the US because of the Persian Gulf crisis that began in 2019.

The crisis started when the forces of the US army increased in numbers following the information gathered by the government that Iran is planning to attack the military situated in the Persian Gulf and claim the area as their own. Unfortunately, other countries also became involved in the conflict, but all of them have sided with the US against Iran. These countries are the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan. The most recent country that was involved in the crisis accidentally was Ukraine, when the Iranian military forces shot down the passenger plane Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on January 8, 2020. Three days after the incident, the Iranian government admitted that they shot down the aircraft by mistake using an SA-15 surface-to-air missile. Because of this ongoing conflict, the Doomsday Clock may come even closer to midnight in the following year.

Related update (January 2012):
Doomsday Clock (Wikipedia)


Related post: