The Doomsday Clock

What exactly is the Doomsday Clock?


On 25th January 2019, the Doomsday Clock was moved closer to midnight, from three to two and a half minutes to twelve.

Created by the board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947, the Doomsday Clock began as a visual representation of the world’s response to nuclear threats. In contrast to the perils it represents, the idea of the clock is very simple. The nearer to midnight the minute hand is placed, the closer the board of Atomic Scientists believes the world is to disaster. Midnight being a representation of the moment of a worldwide apocalypse.

The aim of this shock tactic is to raise awareness of how close human beings are getting to destroying the planet they inhabit. Speaking to USA Today, a representative from the Atomic Scientists explained that the clock “conveys how close we are to destroying our civilisation with dangerous technologies of our own making.”

When the Doomsday Clock was first invented, the scientists involved were also working on the Manhattan Project; a programme responsible for the construction of the first nuclear weapons. Very aware of the consequences of what they were doing, they introduced the clock to warn of the weapons’ power. In this first instance, the hands were set at 7 minutes to midnight.

Since its birth, the clock hands have been moved backwards and forwards. At its ‘safest,’ it was set at seventeen minutes to midnight in 1991. In 1953, at the height of the Cold War, the clock hands were moved to two minutes to midnight, when the USA invented the hydrogen bomb.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives the reason behind the current placement of the hands at two and a half minutes to minute in 2019, as “the failure of President Trump and other world leaders to deal with looming threats of nuclear war and climate change”.

There is no doubt that the reasoning behind the Doomsday Clock is both serious and worrying, but what factors are used to conclude its position?
Eugene Rabinowitch, from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, explains that several factors are taken into consideration when deciding the placement of the hands. These include nuclear threats, climate change, bioterrorism, biosecurity and side threats, such as cyber warfare. “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.”

Just how accurate is the Doomsday Clock, then? Well, the sad truth is that we won’t know until it’s too late. It can’t be denied however, that it does make you stop and think.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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