The last couple of years have felt like the prelude to the apocalypse for a lot of people. Major disasters, violence, death, everything has seemed to be piling on, one thing after another. That feeling has been officially confirmed by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a publication created in 1945 by the University of Chicago scientists who worked on the Manhattan project. The Manhattan project was the original research project behind the atomic bomb which the United States would later use on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The scientists involved created what they called the “Doomsday Clock,” a theoretical countdown to the complete annihilation of the planet. The clock is not real. It’s an estimation of how close we are to global disaster, with midnight indicating the end of the world.
The clock, which is updated every year, hit two minutes on January 25 this year, the closest it has been since the cold war in 1953. If two minutes seems really bad, a point of reference that might help is this: in 1991, the clock was the furthest it has been from midnight since its inception, which was 17 minutes.
Warnings of the apocalypse pop up here and there every now and then but they are not usually based on hard facts. The doomsday clock however, is based on science and that is what makes it frightening.
“In 2017, we saw reckless language in the nuclear realm heat up already dangerous situations and re-learned that minimizing evidence-based assessments regarding climate and other global challenges does not lead to better public policies,” said Rachel Bronson, President and CEO of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in her statement. The clock, says Bronson, is not just about nuclear risk – it also focuses on climate change and emerging technologies, i.e. artificial intelligence – but this year that risk is at the forefront.
“Across the globe, nuclear weapons are poised to become more rather than less usable because of nations’ investments in their nuclear arsenals. This is a concern that the Bulletin has been highlighting for some time, but momentum toward this new reality is increasing,” Bronson stated.
Last year at this time, the clock approached World War II levels of danger. That war killed somewhere in the range of 50 to 80 million people, or somewhere around twice the population of Canada. While the Cold War itself has few, if any, official casualties, the danger of mutually assured destruction secured the world’s place on the edge of her seat. As leaders of the major world powers held their fingers over the buttons that would launch nuclear attacks across the planet, with just enough time for the people on the other side to respond in kind before the strike hit, the world sat terrified. Children learned how to hide under their desks at school in the event of an attack, despite the futility of such an action. Now, we look back at that time in world history and for the first time understand what they may have felt like. The doomsday clock reflects that.
“Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions by both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation,” say the scientists at the Bulletin, referring to the increase in North Korea’s nuclear program and the unorthodox responses on the other side. I can assure you that in this case the size of the button makes no difference.
Each time the Doomsday clock is updated, it quantifies how the world is feeling. We see all of these events or potentials in the news but it is difficult for the untrained mind to put all of that information together. Humans are very good at ignoring what is right in front of their faces, so it seems only logical that our brains would put some things like nuclear holocaust and the potential for genocide on the back burner and allow us to focus on the things in our lives that feel more immediate.
While it is not always necessary to focus on the potentially catastrophic events looming in our collective futures, we cannot ignore them. At the very least, we have to focus that anxious energy into something good. Research on medical technology, helping refugees, and even things as simple as not allowing differences such as age, sex, gender, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation determine a person’s value to us can help make a difference.
January 27 2018 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day that we stop and think about the millions of people who were killed during World War II because of their religion. If you look at this day and see parallels in the modern world, you may understand the setting of two minutes to midnight a little better. The Doomsday clock is not real, but it is meant to scare you. The calculations used to create it are based on scientific data and, while the idea that the world could end so quickly is speculation, the information behind it should be used to push us forward to something better. Let’s not wait too long.