Planet Earth

What is the Doomsday Clock and Why Should You Care?

As the symbolic clock celebrates a major milestone, its keepers reflect on how close humanity is coming to the brink.

By Stephen C. GeorgeJan 20, 2022 9:50 AM
Doomsday Clock
(Credit: Bank Artist/Shutterstock)

Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news
 

It’s almost midnight, and it has been for 75 years.

That’s if you’re telling time by the Doomsday Clock, which isn’t an actual clock, of course. It’s a warning to humanity, a metaphorical countdown to existential midnight, the end of the world as we know it.

Created by the nonprofit Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the idea behind the clock is to remind the general public, policymakers and other scientists “how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making,” and to advance discussions and ideas for reducing human-made threats to our own extinction, according to the organization’s mission. Every January, the Bulletin’s decision-makers convene to announce the clock’s new setting, if there is one (sometimes there isn’t).

Set and Reset

When the Doomsday Clock was first conceived in 1947, nuclear weapons were the technology of greatest concern to the Bulletin (whose founders included Manhattan Project alums). Over time, other issues besides nuclear war have helped inform the organization’s temporal deliberations. In 2007, for example, climate change first played a role in the setting of the hands (at five minutes to midnight). More recently, the Bulletin cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a new factor in determining the setting of the clock.

Those worrisome hands haven’t always inched inexorably towards doom, though. Over the years, the Bulletin has moved the hands back several times, often in response to improved relations between super-powers, as evidenced by arms-reduction treaties. In 1991, the hands sat at 17 minutes to midnight, the furthest away ever, thanks to the end of the Cold War and the signing of the START treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

By 2020, however, the Bulletin had set the clock forward to 100 seconds to midnight — as close as those metaphorical hands have ever come to striking 12. To drive their point home, the Bulletin’s timekeepers left the clock’s hands unchanged throughout 2021 as well, thanks in part to the pandemic. In a statement at the time, the Bulletin noted that “mishandling of this grave global health crisis is a ‘wake-up call’ that governments, institutions and a misled public remain unprepared to handle the even greater threats posed by nuclear war and climate change.”

Today, on the clock’s 75th anniversary, the Bulletin’s science and security board elected to keep the hands set at 100 seconds to midnight for yet another year, citing such factors as the continuing pandemic; nuclear proliferation in Iran, China and North Korea; ongoing climate issues; and state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, among others. "The members of the science and security board find the world to be no safer than it was last year at this time," said Rachel Bronson, the Bulletin's president and CEO, announcing this year's time at a news conference.

Watching the Watchmen

Over the decades, the Doomsday Clock has become an ominous fixture in popular culture, evoked in numerous songs, films, comics and other venues. Its annual settings are attended with a kind of fretful enthusiasm — a bit like Groundhog Day, if Punxsutawney Phil was the herald of nuclear winter, with no spring ever to come again.

Critics of the clock — and there are many, spread across both the political and scientific landscape — dismiss the whole concept as fear-mongering theater, not the sort of thing you’d expect from an organization created by scientists. Historically, opponents have also taken the Bulletin to task for its methodology in setting the clock, which is seen as imprecise, difficult to quantify and even capricious. (Clock detractors like to point out that the initial 1947 setting, at seven minutes to midnight, was chosen merely because its original designer, artist Martyl Langsdorf, thought “it looked good to my eye.”)

Still, supporters and the Bulletin itself maintain that the clock is an iconic metaphor, “a reminder of the perils we must address if we are to survive on the planet,” according to the website.

Meanwhile, whether you want to keep your eye on it or not, the Doomsday Clock is ticking, still closer to midnight than it has ever been, but (hopefully) never quite reaching it.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!

Subscribe

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Join
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

 
Subscribe
To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2022 Kalmbach Media Co.