One Hundred Seconds to Midnight: Why Is It Important to Move the Hands on the Doomsday Clock

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One Hundred Seconds to Midnight: Why Is It Important to Move the Hands on the Doomsday Clock
One Hundred Seconds to Midnight: Why Is It Important to Move the Hands on the Doomsday Clock

Sad record: Doomsday clock is set as close as possible to midnight. Humanity has only 100 seconds left, and it will be incredibly difficult to take the clock hands back. Why is this symbolic translation important and why such a “clock” was invented at all?

The seconds count

Already midnight is approaching

Today, the Earth is closest to the apocalypse since 1947 - the hands on the Doomsday clock show 23:58:20, which means that the situation is critical: when midnight strikes, humanity will simply destroy life on the planet. The clock never showed so late: it was set to 23:58:00 twice on the dial. The first time this happened in 1953, when the USSR and the United States tested thermonuclear bombs, the second - in 2018, which was caused both by political tensions in the world and a catastrophically changing climate.

“Our proximity to disaster is now expressed in seconds - not hours or even minutes,” says Rachel Bronson, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which oversees doomsday clocks. "We are now facing a real emergency - a totally unacceptable state of affairs in the world that leaves no room for error or delay [to correct the situation]."

Of course, this clock expresses the proximity of the end of human civilization not literally, but in a metaphorical sense. Even after midnight, people on the planet will continue to exist - and for sure for more than one hundred years. But then the destructive climatic, political and social processes cannot be reversed. Life on Earth will become unbearable for most of us.


How the atomic bomb set the clock to work

The doomsday clock project started in June 1947, when the stylized image of those hands first appeared on the cover of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Then they showed 23:53 - seven conditional minutes before the point of no return. The launch of the watch was initiated by members of the Chicago Atomic Scientists group, which was founded two years earlier and accepted former and current participants in the Manhattan Project, the American nuclear weapons program.

The group's goal was "to clarify and shape the opinion and responsibilities of scientists regarding the problems caused by the release of nuclear energy and to educate the public to fully understand the scientific, technological and social problems arising from the release of nuclear energy." And the main reason for its creation was the August bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was then that the participants in the scientific programs of the Manhattan Project clearly understood how their creation threatened man.

In the early years of its existence, the project of the Doomsday Clock reflected the reaction of scientists precisely to the nuclear threat. So, the first four transfers of arrows were associated exclusively with the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons. In 1949, after the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear bomb, the clock showed 23:57, four years later (after the already mentioned test of thermonuclear bombs) - 23:58, and then the moment of the apocalypse receded. In 1960, the arrows were seven minutes from midnight, in 1963 - twelve (this happened after the signing of the Moscow Treaty, which established a limited regime for testing nuclear weapons).


But already in 1968, with the next change in the position of the arrows, the number of factors influencing this process increased.Then, in the address of a group of scientists, “the shoots of military nationalism around the globe” and non-nuclear military conflicts: the Six Day War in the Middle East and the Second Indo-Pakistani War were mentioned.

In 1980, the watch was changed from 23:51 to 23:53 - this, perhaps, was the first time when it was impossible to identify the main reason for the changes on the dial. In the address of that year, for the first time, the motive of a lack of resources - "mineral and food" - and the assertion that "a characteristic feature of our era is the inability of wealthy people to accept at least minimal restrictions" appears for the first time.

From nuclear war to climate threat

In the late 1980s, the clock was transformed from an indicator of the likelihood of a nuclear war into a symbol of the general state of the anthroposphere. And this state, to put it mildly, is not very good. After a certain pullback, when in 1991 the clock showed 23:43 (due to the actual end of the Cold War), the hands are steadily moving towards midnight. The only step back was taken in 2010, when the United States abandoned plans to deploy a missile defense system in Eastern Europe and negotiated with Russia to sign a new version of the START Treaty.

Since 2007, climate change has become the dominant theme in physicists' requests for clock adjustments. “We have come to the conclusion that the dangers associated with climate change are as devastating as those associated with nuclear weapons. The effects may be less dramatic in the short term than the devastation from nuclear explosions, but in three to four decades, climate change could irreparably damage the places on which humanity depends for its survival”- such predictions contained an appeal 13 years ago.


The most recent translation of clocks was the sixth since that time. And each time, the problems of the changing climate became one of the determining factors for making a decision to shift the arrows. In 2018, the clock returned to its most threatening position in history: two minutes to midnight, as in 1953. And now 2020 brings a new record: now the score has gone by seconds.

An important symbol and PR problem

Of course, these very 100 seconds before the end of the world are purely symbolic time. There is no adequate way to translate these seconds into cubic meters of harmful emissions or the number of new warheads. However, there is something that gives this symbol a special importance: the people behind it. The decision to transfer is made by world-renowned scientists, including nearly two dozen Nobel laureates.

It is symbolic that the transfer of arrows took place shortly after Time magazine named Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swede, who literally shouts to the whole world about catastrophic climate change, as well as about the unwillingness and inability of the authorities to do something about it. … How many people who have heard of Greta do you think will name at least one person from the group that makes the decision to change the Doomsday clock?


Moreover, climate is far from the only topic mentioned in the latest report from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The translation of the clocks was influenced, among other things, by information chaos (the increase in the number of fakes and deepfakes, attempts to censor the Internet, the increasing frequency of cyberattacks), the inability of world leaders to withstand the increasingly likely threats of nuclear war, tensions between Iran and the United States, and North Korea's nuclear research. But climate issues excite society much more often than all these topics.

In the world of visual content and postirony, a simple watch dial is exactly what is needed to promote the ideas of scientists to the masses. It is difficult for the brain to perceive the cumbersome and saturated with scientific terminology reports of researchers to the brain overloaded with information. And a photo in which a representative of the human race with his own hands brings the hands of the clock closer to the merciless and irrevocable midnight is what is needed.

As strange as it may sound, problems need PR.Especially serious and those who seem to leave "a little more time to wait." When the rising water blows away your home, when rockets fall on the heads of strangers, the news of this is perceived as another action-packed movie. To get people out of this paradigm, performance is needed. It could be a frantic teenage girl denouncing world leaders from the UN stage. These can be serious men in jackets, tearing the veil off the quarter of the dial. “Stupid,” you say. But everyone writes and talks about it.

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