Birth of the Doomsday Clock
(Photo source: BAS)
The Doomsday Clock says the moment both hands point to midnight will be the end of the world.
In January 2022, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS), which conducts the watch, announced that it has maintained its state at 100 Seconds since 2020, the closest to midnight for the third straight year since it first appeared before the world in 1947.
The Doomsday Clock was dreamed up by scientists at University of Chicago who participated in the Manhattan Project—the American atomic bomb development in the 1940s.
After seeing the devastation of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 1945, they realized the nuclear weapons they had invented could be the greatest threat to humankind and established the BAS to raise public awareness that human inventions can destroy the world.
In 1947 the Doomsday Clock started to tick when the journal published by their collective featured a cover design showing the minute hand of a clock predicting the time when the earth would be destroyed by nuclear war.
(Original cover design in 1947)
(Current design, changed in 2007)
The time was set at 7 minutes to midnight. Martyl Langsdorf, the artist who designed the watch, said that the reason for setting it at 7 minutes was “because it looked good to my eyes.” Those expecting a serious, philosophical answer could murmur in perplexity.
Who decides how much time is
left until the end of the world?
The Science and Security Board announces the "time left until midnight" every January and whenever important events occur around the world.
The Science and Security Board, made up of scientists and experts in nuclear and climate sciences, meets twice a year to discuss global issues and reset the time.
The board reviews opinions from the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors and other experts in various disciplines to reset the time. The Board of Sponsors, originally led by Albert Einstein, includes 13 Nobel laureates.
(Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer*, who founded the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, photo credit: BAS)
* Physicist Oppenheimer was a key figure in the Manhattan Project. He served as director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, which developed the atomic bomb, but after World War II he opposed the use of nuclear weapons and was dismissed as a communist and resigned from all public positions.
What are the criteria for resetting the clock? The time on the Doomsday Clock is reset based on data such as the number of nuclear weapons, atmospheric carbon concentration, and sea level rise. Since 2007, climate change has also been included as a deadly threat to destroy the planet because of its intensification.
At the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) held in Glasgow, UK in 2021, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, "It is one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock, and we need to act now. If we don’t get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow.”
Recently, destructive technologies such as cyberattacks, AI, and bioterrorism and COVID-19 have been added to the list of global threats.
(The annual number of nuclear weapons has declined sharply after peaking in 1986)
The history of global crises as seen
through the Doomsday Clock
(Time remaining till midnight by year, image source: Wikimedia)
The minute hand was reset 24 times since the Doomsday Clock started in 1947. Let's look at the main issues that have affected the time we have left.
○ 1953 U.S. conducts the first hydrogen bomb test
When the United States tested the first hydrogen bomb, the clock moved forward to 11:58 p.m., signaling to mankind that the end of the world was just two minutes away.
○ In 1963 the arms race between the USA and the USSR was eased
When United States and Soviet Union signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, ending nuclear explosion tests in the atmosphere, the clock's minute hand moved backward to 23:48.
○ 1972 U.S.-Soviet arms race eased
At 23:48, the clock was pushed back with the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems signed between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.
○ 1984 The Cold War intensifies
It is 23:57: As the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union intensifies and the arms race between the two global superpowers is ratcheted up, the time till the end is shortened to three minutes and counting.
○ 1990 The Berlin Wall comes down!
The time to global holocaust is pushed back to 23:50 as the Berlin Wall falls.
○ 1991—The End of the Cold War
With the end of the Cold War and signing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the USA and USSR, the Doomsday Clock receded 17 minutes to 23:43, removing humanity from the originally denoted midnight warning range of 15 minutes. According to the Doomsday Clock, it was the most hopeful year for peace ever.
○ 2002—U.S. declares war on terrorism
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. declared war on terrorism and withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile ban signed with the Soviet Union in 1972. The time remaining to total annihilation was cut to 7 minutes, and the Doomsday Clock moved forward to 23:53.
○ 2018—North Korea’s nuclear testing and climate change
North Korea's nuclear tests and climate change crisis pushed the clock forward to 23:58, with two minutes left, the closest to midnight since the U.S. and Soviet hydrogen bomb tests in 1953.
○ 2020—The international cooperative system collapses
23:58:20 ~ 100 seconds before the end of the earth! Time is the closest ever to midnight as world leaders fail to tackle the threat of nuclear war and climate change. Concerns about the end of the global cooperative system to deal with existential threats such as the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the breakdown of the Iran nuclear deal, and the division of the UN Security Council are hastening the end of the world.
Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (2020 Sunhak Peace Prize Founder's Special Award laureate) pointed out at the 2020 Doomsday Clock event, "100 seconds is closer to global catastrophe than we have ever experienced before. This is probably a shocking event for the world,” he warned.
(2020 Doomsday Clock presentation, from right to left: Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, 2020 Sunhak Peace Prize Laureate,
former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, and former Governor of California Jerry Brown)
○ 2021—The collapse of the international cooperative system
A hundred seconds remain until the end of the world: with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, threats such as nuclear weapons, climate change, and the risk of false information the fateful clock advanced to 23:58:20.
2022: Doomsday Clock stands at 100 seconds
before humankind's extinction for the third consecutive year!
In January 2022, BAS Chairman Rachel Bronson announced the decision to “set the Doomsday Clock once again at 100 seconds to midnight. "
“This decision is a result of examining man-made threats such as nuclear weapons, climate change and new destructive technologies that endanger human existence,” she explained. "However, our efforts have proved insufficient to stem the tide."
George Washington University professor Sharon Squassoni, co-chair of the Science and Security Board, emphasized the current crisis of the global community, which is imminent at the moment.
In March, the BAS condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the threat of using nuclear weapons, saying it would keep the time to midnight at 100 seconds. At the outset of the war, the Kremlin leaked news that it would consider using nuclear weapons, and tensions over nuclear war arose around the world.
Some question the usefulness of the 75-year-old clock, while others express that it has lost its value as a predictor of anomalous threats between 100 and 50 seconds till midnight.
However, it seems clear that the Doomsday Clock is an indicator of a chain of crises not only in nuclear weapons, but in other areas such as climate change and disruptive technologies.
100 Seconds! If the world was going to be destroyed in 100 seconds, what would you do in that short time?
It is not enough time to prepare for death. Rather than preparing for destruction, shouldn't we strive to turn the clock back further from midnight?
In addition to nuclear weapons, climate change was included as a criterion for setting the deadline. Cyber-attack, AI, bioterrorism, and COVID-19 were all added to the lethal bill of fare.….
When we all pull together to solve these global problems, the time given to humanity will increase.