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The “Doomsday Clock”: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone

Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Arizona State University, writes in the New Yorker about the Doomsday Clock, which was created in 1947 by people associated with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

I am privileged to chair the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, a group of scientists, including sixteen Nobel laureates, that was created by Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer after the Second World War to advise the Bulletin. As a result, I also work with the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, which, each year, decides on the position of the Doomsday Clock. It’s a difficult task. Many disparate, worldwide factors must be judged in order to realistically assess the total existential risk facing humanity. This task has become even more complex in the past decade because the Bulletin has begun to explore issues beyond nuclear weapons, including climate change, bioterrorism, and cyber threats. Last year, in January, 2015, the Bulletin set the Doomsday Clock at three minutes to midnight. In a statement, we wrote that “Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity.”

This year, we’ve decided not to move the clock either forward or backward. It will remain set at 11:57 — three minutes to midnight. The fact that the clock’s hands aren’t moving isn’t good news. It’s an expression of grave concern about how the global situation remains largely the same. The last time the clock was this close to midnight was in 1983 — the height of the Cold War.

The “Doomsday Clock” is an odd thing — or non-thing, because of course there really isn’t any such clock. The idea, in 1947, was to use a ticking clock as an image of approaching nuclear war. Eventually someone decided to make a fake clock with moveable hands to make the occasional Doomsday Press Conferences a little more dramatic, but that’s not a timepiece; rather, it’s an image of an image of an emotion: fear.

I say “image of an emotion” because no actual science goes into the decision of where to place the hands of the clock. The scientists who make the decision have no particular expertise in geopolitical strategy, military and political risk assessment, or even climatology (relevant since they incorporate climate change into their assessment). They just read a bunch of stuff and take their own emotional temperature.

Moreover, now that climate change has entered in a major way into their thinking, the “ticking clock” metaphor has lost its fit to the circumstances. It was a good, strong image in the days of the Cold War, when the perceived danger was a nearly-simultaneous firing of nuclear weapons that could destroy a large part of human civilization in a just few hours. But when you’re trying to think about the consequences of anthropogenic climate change, the idea of a clock ticking down to midnight is meaningless. What would “midnight” be? The effects of such alterations to the ecosphere may indeed be vast, but “vaster than empires and more slow,” as the poet says, unfolding over centuries and millennia.

Still, you can understand why Krauss and his fellow members of the Science and Security Board would want to hang on to it. The fake clock, with its ominous name, seems more real than the guesses and anxieties that establish the position of its hands. And though Krauss in no way hides the Board’s responsibility for its decisions, it’s interesting how his language — and the language of many journalists who write about the clock — veers towards objective description: “The fact that the clock’s hands aren’t moving isn’t good news…. The last time the clock was this close to midnight was in 1983 — the height of the Cold War.” When described in this way — “the clock’s hands aren’t moving” — the thing seems to assume volition, like the planchette of a Ouija board. “The last time the clock was this close to midnight was in 1983” gives the appearance of being a more substantial and objective statement than “The last time members of this Board decided to place the hands this close to midnight was 1983.” (Which, incidentally, wasn’t “the height of the Cold War” — that would have been 1962.)

If indeed anthropogenic climate change has become a greater danger than nuclear weapons — and I’m inclined to think that they may well be true — then the “ticking clock” metaphor needs to be retired. But what would replace it? I’m thinking “the spreading (or contracting) slime mold.” Pretty catchy, no?

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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