Does the Doomsday Clock Really Matter? Experts weigh in

On 24 Januarythe Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock from 100 seconds to midnight to 90 seconds to midnight, reflecting their experts’ opinion of how much closer humanity has slipped to potential global ruin.

“The risk of nuclear escalation in Ukraine brings the world closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Daniel Zimmer, a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Existential Risk Initiative, told Inverse. “It makes sense that the hands move up another ten seconds closer to midnight in 2023.”

Originally conceived during the height of the Cold War as a way to signal to policymakers and the public how close nuclear brinkmanship was to bringing the United States and the Soviet Union to a catastrophic nuclear war, the setting of the clock has recently taken into account other potential existential risks such as climate change and artificial intelligence.

But is a public relations metaphor conceived more than half a century ago still an effective device for communicating risk in the modern world? Was it ever?

Judging by the fact that the end of the Cold War did not lead to worldwide nuclear disarmament, and that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has once again raised the specter of global thermonuclear war, it may seem as if the doomsday clock has never delivered its warning message about nuclear weapons. the researchers behind had thought.

But on the other hand, the doomsday clock is not a formally constructed ritual or device of the state and is in many ways an accidental cultural artifact. It was not conceived as a means to end the threat of worldwide catastrophe directly, and eventually evolved as a means to generate discussion – and headlines – just like the one you clicked on to read more about the doomsday clock.

Former Fermilab director Leon M. Lederman in the hands of a doomsday clock.Tim Boyle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The history of the doomsday clock

The history of the doomsday clock dates back to the late 1940s, when scientists concerned about the risks of nuclear weapons, including Albert Einstein, formed many organizations to lobby for safer nuclear policies, according to Stevens Institute of Technology nuclear technology historian Alex Wellerstein.

“One of these organizations, the Atomic Scientists of Chicago, had created a sort of little newspaper/magazine called Bulletin of Atomic Scientists of Chicagooh, who stayed Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as it became more prominent, says Wellerstein Reverse.

In the first two years after its release, The Bulletin was more like a newspaper, but in 1947 they commissioned Chicago artist Martyl Langsdorf to design a graphic cover, “an elegant minimalist mid-century modernist layout that used six shapes (four circles and two rectangles) to suggest clock hands, ” says Zimemr. . The clock hands “were placed at seven minutes to midnight to indicate urgency, but the initial calibration of the ‘clock’ was done for purely aesthetic reasons by the graphic designer.”

It wasn’t until 1948, when the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, that someone at The Bulletin had the idea to move the hands of the clock forward to three minutes to midnight to reflect the occasion, according to Zimmer.

“They pushed it to two minutes to midnight in 1953 to register the heightened threat of the new hydrogen bomb,” he says, “and then let it oscillate back and forth for the next 50 years as progress toward nuclear arms control advanced and receded back. .”

The further from midnight and annihilation ever represented on the clock was at the end of the Cold War, in 1991 when The Bulletin rolled the minute hand back to 17 minutes from midnight.

But more importantly, it was not until the 1970s that a group of scientists would meet to discuss the threat of apocalypse, nuclear or otherwise, and attempt to reflect the associated risk in the placement of the hands of the doomsday clock. From its inception until around 1973, says Wellerstein, the clock’s time was dictated solely by Bulletin editor Eugene Rabinowitch, which is partly why you can’t draw a hard line between the doomsday clock and the exact level of risk at any time in history, especially from the 20th century to the present.

“Why didn’t they change it in the Cuban Missile Crisis?” says Wellerstein. “Well, because there was a guy, and also the Cuban Missile Crisis happened before they had a chance to update it.”

It was once Rabinowitch died in 1973 that a team of researchers began to set the clock with an eye to really get a message out.

“It starts out as just pure aesthetics and then becomes a very conscious way that the Bulletin and its advisors try to intervene in the world,” says Wellerstein. In the 1980s, “there are newspaper articles about it, there are political cartoons about it. It is featured in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. It becomes this kind of cultural commodity.”

A Brazilian magazine that warns of the dangers of nuclear war. Mondadori Portfolio/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

Does the doomsday clock work?

If the Doomsday Clock was at its peak as a cultural commodity in the 1980s, what about its cultural and political impact? It is impossible to say whether and how much the existence of the clock may have influenced or catalyzed, for example, the talks on strategic arms reduction agreements that began under President Ronald Reagan and were signed in 1991. There are too many factors. And Wellerstein points out that no single public awareness campaign has ever solved a global problem on its own.

“It’s just not like any organization or person, no matter how prestigious, can just say, ‘hey guys, the world is in a bad place. Can you please fix it?’ he says. – The problems are too big. The world is too complicated.”

But it may be useful to remember, Wellerstein adds, that the doomsday clock is not a scientific instrument or an institution. It is a metaphor and a communication tool. A reasonable measure of success might simply be whether people are talking about it as times change, and the issues behind it change.

“Is it worth writing articles about? It seems to be, says Wellerstein. “Does it produce, I don’t know, public outcry and radical change? I mean, it never has.”

The first detonation during Operation Ivy, which involved testing the hydrogen bomb. Underwood Archives/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Judgment day today

If you’re going to pay attention to the doomsday clock, one way to think of it is as a measure of how world leaders are responding to global risks at a given moment, rather than a measure of when disaster might strike, according to Simon Beard, the Center’s academic program director for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University.

“The very late setting of the clock now, in my view, is justified not because the current geopolitical situation is necessarily worse than it was during the Cold War,” says Beard Reverse“but that it is still further from what is needed because the actual level of global cooperation needed to deal with all the existential risks we face is higher.”

It’s not just the risk of a US-USSR nuclear exchange anymore, Zimmer points out, although the war in Ukraine has certainly revived that possibility. Nuclear weapons have spread into more hands, very little of practical value has been done to even begin to halt climate change in time to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius,” and perhaps most dishearteningly, after the millions of human lives that were lost and the epochal disruption of daily life caused by Covid, astonishingly few resources are allocated to future preparedness for a naturally occurring pandemic, he says.

So while there’s a risk in convincing people of the movements of the doomsday clock’s hands by keeping them so close to midnight — a problem with switching from minutes to seconds might help, Zimmer adds — “it’s not wrong in itself that the clock’s pointers should be stuck where they are, he says. “If we’ve become psychologically numb to that fact, that’s up to us.”

A climate protest in Brussels in 2022. NurPhoto/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Good news on the brink

The very fact that people may be confused by the doomsday clock’s message is both a risk and a sign of a potentially positive trend. If people are in danger of being burned out on messages that the world is facing serious risks, at least it means that people are actually aware of those risks. There are now academic centers like Beard and Zimmer dedicated to researching existential risks and how to mitigate them.

If you need to motivate people to take action to prevent disaster, it may be preferable to find a way to move those who are aware and flirt with fatalism rather than reach many who are unaware of the dangers.

“For me, the most important thing to remember — no matter what risk you’re looking at — is that, miracle of miracles, we’re still here despite all the existential risks that we’ve already taken to date,” Zimmer says. “This means we still have time to turn things around, no matter how late the hour is.”

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