Doomsday Clock Resets: Is This the End?

At 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) reset the famous "Doomsday Clock" to six minutes to midnight from its previous position of five minutes to midnight. This shift of one minute, the smallest adjustment in the history of the clock, indicates that the BAS is slightly more optimistic that the world might be able to address its problems and increase its security.For more than sixty years, the clock has been a powerful metaphor for the dangers facing humanity. In 1947, the BAS's Board of Directors -- a group of physicists who had worked on the Manhattan Project -- created the clock, initially setting it to seven minutes to midnight. In the ensuing decades, the BAS has reset the clock 19 times, calibrating its position based upon scientific and historical events that, in its estimation, have brought the world closer to or further away from armageddon.

The clock's most pessimistic setting, two minutes to midnight, occured in 1953, when the United States and the Soviet Union created the hydrogen bomb and tested nuclear missiles within nine months of each other. At the time, the Bulletin intoned, "Only a few more swings of the pendulum, and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western civilization."

On the opposite end of the scale, from 1991 to 1995, the clock was set at 17 minutes to midnight, indicating a hope that the end of the Cold War and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty offered hope for lasting security. Recently, however, the arms race in India and Pakistan, the 9/11 terrorist attack, the expansion of nuclear capability and worldwide climate change have pushed the clock closer and closer to midnight. In 2007, it was reset to 11:55, the worst time since 1984.

Beyond the Cold War

The year 2007 was also the first time that the BAS focused on issues other than nuclear weapons: "There's a realization that we are changing our climate for the worse," the BAS's editor, Mark Strauss, said at the time, "Although the threat is not as dire as that of nuclear weapons right now, in the long term we are looking at a serious threat." This year, the BAS extended its scope a little further, pointing out that genetic engineering could pose a massive danger to humanity, largely through the destructive potential of bioengineered viruses.

In some ways, the BAS's decision to expand its focus feels like a bid for increased relevance. Between nuclear nonproliferation treaties, the end of the Cold War, massive reduction in stockpiles, and increased communication between nuclear powers, the chance of a world-ending nuclear exchange has plunged from where it stood a few decades ago. For many who grew up in the 1980's, there was little question that the world was moving toward a nuclear holocaust that could wipe out humanity; today, that danger seems increasingly distant.

Still, despite the BAC's decision to cite biosecurity as a threat to humanity, none of the speakers at Thursday's resetting addressed this emerging problem. In fact, based on the rhetoric at that presentation, it appears that the BAS remains stuck in a Cold War mindset: citing the dangers of the Indian-Pakistani arms race, tensions between the US and Russia, and the potentially devastating environmental effects of even a small nuclear exchange, the panel of scientists gave the impression that they were completely focused on the nuclear threat. This perspective was mirrored in the panel's ten suggestions for increasing world security: seven addressed nuclear weapons and three addressed the environment, but there was no mention of biosecurity. For that matter, a subsequent discussion on the issue was attended by one speaker, one journalist and one heckler.

New Threats

And yet biosecurity could potentially offer a dire threat to humanity. In 2005, scientists resurrected a dead disease, synthesizing the 1918 Spanish flu in a laboratory. Dr. Jonathan Tucker, the leader of the biosecurity session, noted that "designer" pathogens are currently beyond the reach of the genetic engineers; however, he also admitted that, as the science continues to advance, it is only a matter of time before scientists will reach this next step. In the meantime, there is no organized regulation of the industry, and it is almost impossible for any single country to unilaterally police its scientists. As Tucker put it, "If the US enacts draconian regulations while other countries are lax, then the net effect will be to limit America's scientific competitiveness."

The Doomsday Clock also seems to reflect the waning power of countries and the increasing power of companies. In the height of the Cold War, the clock's setting could change massively because of a single treaty between two major powers; in 1963, for example, the clock moved from seven minutes to twelve minutes because the US and the USSR signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty. On Thursday, however, the impressive combination of a recent detente between the US and Russia, a joint emissions agreement between the US and China, and the Copenhagen Accord managed to move the clock by just one minute.

For better or worse, the end of the Cold War has led to a fracturing of power, placing responsibility for world security in an ever-increasing number of hands. While we are further away from Armageddon at the push of a button, we are also further away from easy choices and less able to place sole responsibility in the hands of our leaders. In the future, tiny shifts in the minute hand will require massive efforts from all of us.
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