Doomsday Clock Stands Still Amid Nuclear Tensions

By Nancy Chan

I am glad to learn the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) exists because they back their Doomsday theories with empirical evidence and historical observation instead of paranoia or religious predictions.

Knowing the team includes University of Chicago scientists who helped develop the first nuclear weapons adds credibility to their predictions.

However, there is one large glaring flaw to the Doomsday Clock—it’s not a clock.

Clocks measure time as we know it, moving forward without ever turning back. However, the Doomsday clock’s hands are altered depending on how potentially catastrophic events occur and how they are handled.

One example cited as the closest to world destruction was in 1953 during the Cold War, when both Russia and the United States were conducting hydrogen bomb tests. This put the minute hand two minutes before midnight.

Fast forward seven years to 1960, the minute hand was placed seven minutes before midnight, meaning the world was “four minutes” farther from ending.

Through the decades the hands were adjusted repeatedly. It is more accurate to call the Doomsday Clock the Doomsday Timer.

I understand such a change may warrant a redesign, since the current version has minute and hour hands. But is the hour hand necessary, when the only hour represented is between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m.?

Timers measure a shorter range of time, which is appropriate when only considering single hour. Unlike clocks, they can be turned forward or backward without any theoretical inaccuracy.

Having an unspecified hour can replace the metaphor in current use, “to midnight,” without losing truth, like”until the final hour” or something. There is no shortage of adjectives to describe danger.

 Finally, timers can represent positive responsibility better than clocks. Just replace the hands with a dial. Modern clocks don’t require winding to continue running—electricity or batteries do the trick, whereas timers with manual dials still require human hands to operate.

What could be a more encouraging metaphor to us all than acknowledging wrongs and finding solutions? The current Doomsday Clock is clearly an aggregate of human actions and consequences. I intend to read through the BAS official website for additional reading.

As of 2016 the minute hand is considered “three minutes to midnight,” which is a slight improvement from 1953. Maybe the optimistic side of me is speaking, but I would like to think reversing some of the damage we’ve done to the planet—and to each other—can happen.


Contact the reporter

Send an email to: Nancy Chan