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What Is Doomsday Clock?

Doomsday clock is a hypothetical representation of how near humanity is to a worldwide catastrophe. It was designed to explore the implications of the nuclear weapons and raise global awareness, rather than predicting the actual doom. The Clock has been maintained since 1947.

The Doomsday Clock portrays international security status, and it is considered to be one of the best contraptions to predict infallible catastrophe that’s entirely anthropogenic.

Initially named as the Bulletin Clock or the Clock of Doom, the idea was developed in 1947 by the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a publication founded in 1945 by scientists who participated in the Manhattan Project. Its purpose is to demonstrate the need for “urgent steps” to reduce global nuclear arsenals and avert the risk of human extinction.

The outset of the Bulletin was transpired by atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They began by publishing a mimeographed newsletter, and then fully developed into a formal magazine in 1947.

The image of the Doomsday Clock that appeared on the cover of the June 1947 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was created, at the request of the Bulletin co-founder Dr. Hyman H. Goldsmith, by an artist Martyl Langsdorf, the wife of Manhattan Project research associate Alexander Langsdorf. 

Came to prominence for her abstract landscapes and murals, the artist ran into the idea of using the Clock to symbolize urgency of the nuclear dangers. She had thought of re-adjusting the upper-left quadrant with the minute hand approaching midnight, every month with an altered background color. Then she laid her first sketch on the back of a bound volume of Beethoven sonatas with the clock set at 7 minutes to midnight.

Cover of the 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists designed by Martyl Langsdorf
Cover of the 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists designed by Martyl Langsdorf. [via The New York Times]

In 1949, the Bulletin began responding to major events through moving the minute hand of the Clock, and the image of the Clock dominated the magazine cover till 1964. Then in 1984, Langsdorf revised the clock’s design by placing its hands on the globe.

Since the original setting, the minute hand has been moved back and forth 23 times. The doomsday clock made the first movement – 3 minutes to midnight – when the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, the RDS-1, in 1949. It officially set off the nuclear arms race.

The closest approach to midnight the clock made was in 1953; the minute hand was set at 2 minutes to midnight. It was when the United States tested its first thermonuclear device in November 1952, before the Soviet Union emulated similar approach nine months later. And in 2018 with world leaders failing to ameliorate the threat of climate change and Trump administration ditching the U.S. efforts to lead the world toward decarbonization.

The furthest from midnight the Clock has been was 17 minutes to midnight. It was when the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to sign the long-awaited Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and reduce their tactical arsenals.  It occurred in 1991.

The global nuclear non-proliferation regime, in a way, backs the Doomsday Clock itself. That regime was originally established to protect the world from the existential threat of nuclear weapons. But with the growing global proliferation of nuclear weapons and irrevocable effects of climate change and global warming factored in, the Clock sits still at 2 minutes to midnight in 2019.

Fake news and spread of misinformation that distort reality and muddle our understandings about current issues and events have pushed humanity to graver proximity to the point of annihilation than the Clock has been since 1953.

The scientific community enshrines the Doomsday Clock for what it is now. However, some folks take a different view and just don’t agree to it. They say the idea is absurdly unscientific and the members are doing a lousy job assessing the actual nuclear risk. 

Do you agree? Voice your opinion in the comments!

Explore Further:

  • The Doomsday Clock Timeline — The Bulletin
  • How Accurate is the Doomsday Clock — Quora
  • How the Doomsday Clock could help trigger the armageddon it warns of — The Conversation

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