The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic clock face, representing a countdown to possible global catastrophe (e.g. nuclear war or climate change). It has been maintained since 1947 by the members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who are in turn advised by the Governing Board and the Board of Sponsors, including 18 Nobel Laureates. The closer they set the Clock to midnight, the closer the scientists believe the world is to global disaster.
Originally, the Clock, which hangs on a wall in the Bulletin's office in the University of Chicago, represented an analogy for the threat of global nuclear war; however, since 2007 it has also reflected climate change and new developments in the life sciences and technology that could inflict irrevocable harm to humanity. The most recent officially announced setting—three minutes to midnight (11:57 pm)—was made on January 22, 2015 due to climate change, the modernization of nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia, and the problem of nuclear waste.
The origin of the Clock can be traced to the international group of researchers called the Chicago Atomic Scientists who had participated in the Manhattan Project. After the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they started to publish a mimeographed newsletter and then a bulletin. Since its inception, the Clock has been depicted on every cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Its first representation was in 1947, when bulletin co-founder Hyman Goldsmith asked artist Martyl Langsdorf (wife of Manhattan Project research associate and Szilárd petition signatory Alexander Langsdorf, Jr.) to design a cover for the magazine's June 1947 issue. As Eugene Rabinowitch, another co-founder of the Bulletin, explained later,
The Bulletin's clock is not a gauge to register the ups and downs of the international power struggle; it is intended to reflect basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age...
In January, 2007, designer Michael Bierut, who was on the Bulletin's Governing Board, redesigned the Clock to give it a more modern feel. In 2009, the Bulletin ceased its print edition and was one of the first print publications in the US to become entirely digital; the Clock is now found as part of the logo on the Bulletin's website. Information about the Doomsday Clock Symposium, a timeline of the Clock's settings, and multimedia shows about the Clock's history and culture can also be found on the Bulletin's website.
The 5th Doomsday Clock Symposium was held on November 14, 2013 in Washington, D.C.; it was a daylong event that was open to the public and featured panelists discussing various issues on the topic "Communicating Catastrophe." There was also an evening event at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in conjunction with the Hirshhorn's current exhibit, "Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950." The panel discussions, held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, were streamed live from the Bulletin's website, and can still be viewed there. Reflecting international events dangerous to humankind, the Clock's hands have been adjusted twenty times since its inception in 1947, when the Clock was initially set to seven minutes to midnight (11:53pm).
Symbolic timepiece changes
In 1947, during the Cold War, the Clock was started at seven minutes to midnight and was subsequently advanced or rewound per the state of the world and nuclear war prospects. The Clock's setting is decided by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and is an adjunct to the essays in the Bulletin on global affairs. The Clock is not set and reset in real time as events occur; rather than respond to each and every crisis as it happens, the Science and Security Board meets twice annually to discuss global events in a deliberative manner. The closest nuclear war threat, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, reached crisis, climax, and resolution before the Clock could be set to reflect that possible doomsday.
|Year||Minutes to midnight||Time||Change||Reason|
|1947||7||23:53||—||The initial setting of the Doomsday Clock.|
|1949||3||23:57||-4||The Soviet Union tests its first atomic bomb, officially starting the nuclear arms race.|
|1953||2||23:58||-1||The United States and the Soviet Union test thermonuclear devices within nine months of one another. (This is the clock's closest approach to midnight since its inception.)|
|1960||7||23:53||+5||In response to a perception of increased scientific cooperation and public understanding of the dangers of nuclear weapons (as well as political actions taken to avoid "massive retaliation") the United States and Soviet Union cooperate and avoid direct confrontation in regional conflicts such as the 1956 Suez Crisis. Scientists from different countries help establish the International Geophysical Year, a series of coordinated, worldwide scientific observations between nations allied with both the United States and the Soviet Union, and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which allow Soviet and American scientists to interact.|
|1963||12||23:48||+5||The United States and Soviet Union sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty, limiting atmospheric nuclear testing.|
|1968||7||23:53||-5||Regional wars wage: Vietnam War intensifies, Six-Day War occurs in 1967 and Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 takes place. Worse yet, France and China, two nations which have not signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, acquire and test nuclear weapons (the 1960 Gerboise Bleue nuclear test and 1964 596 nuclear test, respectively) to assert themselves as global players in the nuclear arms race.|
|1969||10||23:50||+3||Every nation of the world, with the notable exceptions of India, Pakistan, and Israel, signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.|
|1972||12||23:48||+2||The United States and the Soviet Union sign the SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.|
|1974||9||23:51||-3||India tests a nuclear device (Smiling Buddha), SALT II talks stall. Both the United States and the Soviet Union modernize MIRVs.|
|1980||7||23:53||-2||Unforeseeable end to deadlock in American–Soviet talks as Soviet war in Afghanistan proceeds. As a result of the war, the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify SALT II agreement between both nations and President Jimmy Carter pulls the United States from the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow and considers ways in which the United States could win a nuclear war.|
|1981||4||23:56||-3||The clock is adjusted in early 1981. Soviet war in Afghanistan toughens the U.S. nuclear posture. Ronald Reagan becomes president, scraps further arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union and argues that the only way to end the Cold War is to win it. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union contributes to the danger of the nuclear annihilation.|
|1984||3||23:57||-1||Further escalation of the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The clock is adjusted in December 1983 since the ongoing Afghanistan war heats the Cold war. U.S. Pershing II medium-range ballistic missile and cruise missiles are deployed in Western Europe. Ronald Reagan pushes to win the Cold War by intensifying the arms race between the superpowers.|
|1988||6||23:54||+3||In December 1987 the Clock is moved back as the United States and the Soviet Union sign treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles, and their relations improve.|
|1990||10||23:50||+4||Fall of the Berlin Wall, dissolution of Iron Curtain, Cold War nearing an end.|
|1991||17||23:43||+7||United States and Soviet Union sign the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the Soviet Union dissolves. (This is the furthest from midnight the clock has been since its inception.)|
|1995||14||23:46||-3||Global military spending continues at Cold War levels; concerns about post-Soviet nuclear proliferation of weapons and brainpower.|
|1998||9||23:51||-5||Both India (Pokhran-II) and Pakistan (Chagai-I) test nuclear weapons in a tit-for-tat show of aggression; the United States and Russia run into difficulties in further reducing stockpiles.|
|2002||7||23:53||-2||Little progress on global nuclear disarmament; United States rejects a series of arms control treaties and announces its intentions to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; concerns about the possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack due to the amount of weapon-grade nuclear materials that are unsecured and unaccounted for worldwide.|
|2007||5||23:55||-2||North Korea tests a nuclear weapon in October 2006, Iran's nuclear ambitions, a renewed American emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials, and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia. After assessing the dangers posed to civilization, climate change was added to the prospect of nuclear annihilation as the greatest threats to humankind.|
|2010||6||23:54||+1||Worldwide cooperation to reduce nuclear arsenals and limit effect of climate change. New START agreement is ratified by both the United States and Russia and more negotiations for further reductions in the American and Russian nuclear arsenal are already planned. 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark results in the developing and industrialized countries agreeing to take responsibility for carbon emissions and to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.|
|2012||5||23:55||-1||Lack of global political action to address global climate change, nuclear weapons stockpiles, the potential for regional nuclear conflict, and nuclear power safety.|
|2015||3||23:57||-2||Continued lack of global political action to address global climate change, the modernization of nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia, and the problem of nuclear waste.|
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- The Doomsday Clock. The Southeast Missourian, February 22, 1984.
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