Regardless of what your watch tells you, it’s 100 seconds to midnight. It is the interval on the symbolic clock of the end of the world between the present moment and the “planetary catastrophe”. Alternative rock band REM put it another way: “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”
In 1947, a group of scientists who had worked on the first nuclear weapons imagined the doomsday clock as a metaphor warning how close humanity was to destroying itself. The iconic clock has been the symbol of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists since, and on the occasion of its 75th anniversary, the experts of the group say that we are closer than ever to this horrible awakening.
The clock is reset every January, and not even at the height of the Cold War, when Americans were digging fallout shelters and children were being told to ‘hide’ under their school desks in case of disaster. atomic attack, were the hands of the clock this far into the final countdown.
It’s a pretty spooky way to celebrate his 75th birthday, but as Newsletter editor John Mecklin observes that there are more ingredients for a possible doomsday scenario than ever before. When the clock was first shown in the June 1947 issue – set to seven minutes to midnight – the editors were concerned only with the likelihood that atomic bombs would soon rain down on the world’s capitals. Now the NewsletterThe Science and Security Council of Canada not only considers the nuclear threat when deciding where to set the hands of the clock each year.
“Climate change, biological threats, artificial intelligence — there are a lot of emerging issues that could threaten the planet,” Mecklin says. In recent years, the committee has even added the rapid spread of disinformation to its growing list of existential threats to humanity.
Early atomic scientists “knew that nuclear weapons were the first human creation that could literally end civilization,” Mecklin says. “But they also realized there would be others.”
In their incredibly entertaining new book, The doomsday clock at 75Robert K. Elder and JC Gabel trace the history of the clock, which they claim is “the most powerful informational design element of the 20th century”.
The clock came simply because the association’s editors – most of whom were scientists working on the Manhattan nuclear project during World War II – wanted a striking cover for the first issue of the new magazine they were throwing.
“Publishers were concerned that the nuclear weapons they helped create would not be fully understood by politicians or the public,” Mecklin says. “They wanted people to understand that these weapons could literally end civilization – and even, perhaps, the human species.”
Fortunately, the Chicago-based scientists didn’t have to look far for a designer. Famous landscape designer Martyl Langsdorf was married to physicist Alexander Langsdorf, who worked on the Manhattan Project.
“Being the so-called artist-in-residence for the scientific community, they asked me to do the front cover of the future magazine,” Langsdorf, who painted under the name “Martyl,” said in an interview before her. died in 2013.
Sketching on the back cover of a hardcover copy of Beethoven’s Sonatas, Langsdorf elaborated the concept of a clock with its minute hand sweeping toward midnight – symbolizing, as she put it, “the urgency and time of gasoline”.
Langsdorf’s design started out as an entire clock face, but quickly scaled it down to the last 15 minutes of the hour. It apparently never occurred to Langsdorf that publishers might one day want to pull that minute hand well below the 45-minute mark. Never mind: world events have only once raised this happy dilemma. In 1991, after the United States and the Soviet Union signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START 1) and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the clock briefly fell to 17 minutes to midnight.
As catchy as the title is, the clock didn’t earn its “apocalypse” moniker until relatively recently. For decades it was simply known as the atomic clock. The first known references to the Doomsday Clock did not appear in newspapers until 1968, and the Newsletter officially adopted the name in 1972.
The reviews of the Newsletter and its scary clock have dismissed it as a political stunt, or even a counterproductive message that doesn’t help the public and policy makers. If everything is a crisis, then nothing is a crisis.
Some, like science writer Charles Mann, are generally not fans of doomsday scenarios. “In the history of the human species, has a human heart ever been deeply moved by a graphic? he asked in a 2014 article on environmental doomsayers.
Mecklin says the doomsday clock was always meant to be an alarm clock — and from a group of scientists who had a clear agenda against nuclear weapons. Co-founder Goldsmith was one of 70 scientists who wrote a joint letter to President Harry S. Truman urging him not to use the atomic bomb against Japan. (They were too late: the letter did not reach Truman until after Hiroshima.)
Among the first national publications to go fully digital, the Newsletter stopped printing copies of the magazine in 2008. Yet the iconic clock appears on every digital issue and at the top of the Atomic Scientists web page.
Drumbeat of crises
As I was going through back issues of the Newsletter, each track bristling with reminders of my childhood in the 1960s, spent in the shadow of a mushroom cloud: “Nuclear Blast Effects” (1961). “The Bomb in China” (1964). “Bedlam’s Politics” (1963). I vividly remember peering at a map, printed on the front page of our suburban New Jersey newspaper, depicting concentric circles of destruction from a notional atomic bomb dropped on the Empire State Building (and sighing with relief from find that the outermost circle did not cross my town, but the town next door).
For many of us, that 1960s fear of falling nuclear weapons has long since been diluted by a drumbeat of later crises. It’s almost like we’re becoming comfortable skating on the fringes of Armageddon.
“Nobody wants to carry around, every day, all the time, the idea of a nuclear threat,” he says. “When you stop to think of all the false warnings that almost resulted in nuclear war, when you think of all the times luck saved humanity, it’s scary.”
Resetting the doomsday clock every January, he says, gives the whole world permission to watch the nuclear threat hum, like a transformer behind an electric chair, with ominous persistence. “If there is a nuclear war, then any other issues you may have won’t matter.”
And so, Mecklin and his colleagues stubbornly play the role of the biblical prophet of bad news Hosea, preaching a warning of doom to a distracted, if not disinterested, people.
So, all together now:Happy birthday to youuuuu…” And hope that only the candles will be blown out.