A group of scientists—the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—which included Albert Einstein, created the Doomsday Clock in 1947. Each year, a board of experts in various fields, including 13 Nobel Laureates, determines where the hands of the clock should be placed based on world events. The hands on the clock feature a disastrous equation—the closer the minute hand is to midnight, the closer the world is to Armageddon.
The clock has moved backward and forward since 1947, from seventeen minutes to midnight in 1991 to two minutes to midnight in 1953. However, on Tuesday, January 24, 2023, it was moved to, the closest it has ever been to the top of the hour. An hour that symbolically represents the point of humanity’s annihilation or Armageddon.
So let’s look at ten things you should know about the Doomsday Clock.
10 The History of the Doomsday Clock
The Doomsday Clock is not an actual clock; it’s a representation designed by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that depicts a portion of a clock with hands that represent how close we are to destroying life as we know it. These scientists, who were all involved with the Manhattan Project, helped to design the atomic bomb but opposed its use on people. As of the founding and formation of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the organization updates its hands every year.
Initially, the symbol was intended to represent the threat of nuclear war, fueled by the Cold War arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. Since then, the timekeepers have considered a broader scope of worldwide issues. A physical representation of the Doomsday Clock can be found at the University of Chicago.
9 Apocalyptic Anxiety
The decision to move the clock’s hands to 90 seconds before midnight comes after a tumultuous year in world affairs. Today we know that threats of nuclear annihilation were indeed being exchanged on an almost monthly basis between Trump and Kim-Jong Un. More recently, escalations in the Ukraine war have led Western military commanders to publicly discuss an impending war with Russia.
In such a climate, the clock serves as a foreboding warning of the worldwide threat of nuclear war. It symbolizes humanity’s impending global catastrophe, defined by midnight on the dials.
According to Rachel Bronson, the president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “We are living in a time of unprecedented danger, and the Doomsday Clock time reflects that reality. 90 seconds to midnight is the closest the Clock has ever been set to midnight, and it’s a decision our experts do not take lightly. The U.S. government, its NATO allies, and Ukraine have a multitude of channels for dialogue; we urge leaders to explore all of them to their fullest ability to turn back the Clock.”
8 Single Events Cannot Influence the Clock
It is important to note that the Doomsday Clock cannot be adjusted by a single event, whether it be positive or negative. As such, the Bulletin did not modify the clock after the September 11, 2001 attacks. However, the growing threat of terrorism led the U.S. to consider withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty the following year. This, combined with international terrorism and the Afghan war, resulted in a reduction from nine to seven minutes.
In the same vein, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis did not cause any changes to the dials. Instead, it produced a new treaty restricting nuclear tests in the atmosphere the following year, which caused the doomsday clock to move backward.
7 Dangers Related to Artificial Intelligence
The threats identified by the Bulletin include artificial intelligence (AI), the escape of dangerous and deadly pathogens from laboratory facilities, and Ebola and other zoonotic diseases that “threaten humanity.” If the COVID pandemic taught us anything, it’s that we should pay better attention to pandemic preparedness.
Several tech luminaries and notable scientists, including Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, signed an open letter in 2017 in which they urged the United Nations to enact a ban on weapons humans have no meaningful control over. The letter warned against the incredible danger of starting a global arms race in AI technologies. According to the signatories, the risks might be significantly higher than many of those posed by weapons of mass destruction.
6 Adding the Climate
After a decade of deliberation, the Bulletin decided to add the risks brought about by changes to the world’s climate into their calculations in 2008. They explicitly cited the earth-threatening dangers posed by warming global temperatures, rapid advances in life sciences, and other technological advancements.
With Russia ranking second only to the United States in global natural gas and oil production, the invasion of Ukraine triggered a mad scramble to develop freedom from Russian gas supplies, especially in the European Union. Because of this continued demand, global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion rose to an all-time high in 2022 after rebounding from the COVID economic recession in 2021.
5 In Total, the Clock Was Reset 25 Times
In 1947, the clock’s original setting was fixed at seven minutes to midnight. It has since been reset eight times to go backward and seventeen times to move forward—a total of 25 times. Its farthest placement from midnight was at 17 minutes in 1991, and the closest, as we now know, was set at 90 seconds on January 24, 2023. The Bulletin has shifted the clock hand away from midnight nearly as often as it has moved it toward midnight in equal amounts during both Republican and Democratic administrations in the United States.
The only time we’ve ever been as close to midnight as we are today was in 1953 when the dials were moved to two minutes to midnight. This occurred after both the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested fusion weapons, or “H-bombs,” within nine months of each other.
4 The Best of Times
The hands of the clock can move backward, forward, or remain stationary. In 1991, they were the furthest away from midnight—a record 17 minutes—a decision inspired by post-Cold War confidence. The minute hand had to be moved outside the segment of the clock represented in the original design during our “best of times” moment—17 minutes to midnight.
The transition expressed our collective relief at surviving 45 years without a nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the peace only lasted for about a decade before the early 2000s heralded a “new nuclear age,” as the Bulletin put it, and the clock started ticking again.
3 The Worst of Times
Before January 24, the two most difficult periods in global history were 1949 and 1953. In 1949, the Bulletin set the clock to 11:57 or three minutes to midnight, as the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb, signaling our impending doom.
However, scientists warned world leaders in 1953 that they were playing with fire, and some of those warnings stuck. As diplomatic solutions temporarily averted a nuclear war in the late 1950s, the group turned back the clock, and by 1963, the world was thought to be relatively “safe” at 12 minutes from doom.
2 What Happens at Midnight?
The scientists behind the Doomsday Clock are quick to emphasize that every time the dial moves, it’s intended to be a call to take action and a reminder of the threats the world is currently facing instead of a rigid and unchanging timescale of humanity’s future. But people are obviously inquisitive about what will happen if we find ourselves at the clock’s midnight hour.
A global disaster has arisen if the Doomsday Clock finds itself at midnight. This could be an outbreak of a nuclear war, an uncontainable threat to the world’s bio- or cybersecurity, or irrecoverable and catastrophic climate change. Unfortunately, in this case, we are unlikely to see the clock updated as there won’t be anyone left to take care of the honors.
1 Ninety Seconds to Midnight
As reported by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the move of the clock’s hands was primarily motivated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago and an increased risk of nuclear escalation. The groups’ decision was also influenced by the climate crisis and the further breakdown of worldwide norms and institutions required to counteract the dangers of advanced technology and biological threats like recent virus outbreaks.
The Bulletin confirmed that they had also taken into consideration the fact that China, North Korea, Iran, and India all increased their nuclear capabilities in recent times. Because of the increase in carbon dioxide emissions and severe weather events, the threat of climate change was also a significant concern. In addition, infectious diseases and biosecurity are substantial concerns for the Bulletin, as is “cyber-enabled disinformation” and its genuine threat to democracy. In effect, we are currently 90 seconds away from midnight. But that could very well be 90 seconds until the end of the world…