Two Minutes To Midnight: 2018, The Most Dangerous Year On Record?

In 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists unveiled the Doomsday Clock, a visual symbol to inform the public as to, “how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making.” It was a reaction to the first use of nuclear weapons in 1945 and reflected a growing anxiety at the prospect of a coming nuclear arms race. Essentially, the concept displays an annual and visual assessment of the likelihood of a nuclear war. The clock’s minute hand and its proximity to midnight is reflective of the world drawing closer to a nuclear apocalypse. A board of scientists and nuclear consultants meet to discuss world events and each year reset the clock accordingly.

In 2018, the Science and Security board set the time to two minutes to midnight, largely due to nuclear risk. When announcing the clock’s new setting, Rachel Bronson, Head of the Bulletin, said, “to call the situation dire is to understate the danger.” This is the closest the clock’s minute hand has been to midnight in over sixty years. The only other time the hand has been set this close was 1953, the year that the United States and the Soviet Union each tested their first thermonuclear weapons. Reflecting on 2018, the Bulletin justified its decision citing that, “hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions by both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear by accident or miscalculation.” This view has been worryingly reinforced by the former M16 Chief Sir John Sawers, who said, “chance of a preemptive US military strike [on North Korea] is much higher than people in Europe realize.” Even leading religious figures have now acknowledged the need to address nuclear tensions. In January, following the false ballistic missile alert issued in Hawaii, the Pope himself expressed fears that the world is at the, “very limit,” of nuclear war.

The Doomsday Clock design was originally conceived to address the dangers of nuclear weapons. The project’s designer, Martyl Langsdorf, was married to Alexander Langsdorf, a physicist that worked on the Manhattan Project, a US-led initiative to produce the world’s first nuclear weapon. The couple believed they had a responsibility to inform the public about the weapon’s destructive capability. After hearing the concerns of the scientists who had worked on the Bomb, Martyl elected to use a clock as the principal symbol of the design to suggest, “that we didn’t have much time left to get atomic weapons under control.” Eugene Rabinowitch, a member of the Bulletin, reflects that the ultimate purpose of the concept is to, “reflect basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age.”

However, over time the concept has been adapted to include other dangers that could inflict irrevocable harm to our modern day life. These include, “climate-changing technologies, emerging bio-technologies, and cyber technology.” When deciding on a change in the Doomsday Clock, a whole host of factors are considered by panellists. For instance, Bulletin members in 2018 lobbied for, “evidence-based policy making, not policy based evidence making.” They are campaigning for a more transparent government that embraces and utilizes big data. Lawrence Krauss, a Bulletin panellist, bemoaned current policymaker attitudes. He claims that “divorcing public policy from empirical reality endangers us all.”

While it is certainly disconcerting and unnerving to see the Doomsday Clock set so close to an apocalyptic midnight, it is important to emphasize that the clock is a subjective design concept, not a proven mathematical theorem. As such, the Doomsday Clock is a symbol of global threats. It was created to raise awareness of the likelihoods of global threats actually materializing, and by doing so it hopes to kick-start a response that prevents such a fallout from happening. It’s also important to recognize the Doomsday Clock for what it is, a reminder of our own mortality.