Jane VaynmanNow approaching midnight

This is DJ Shadow. His “Midnight in a Perfect World” contains is one of many pop culture references to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist’s “Doomsday Clock” that tracks the level of nuclear danger in the world. (Jeffrey adds: Paul is so money.)

In a few days, The Bulletin will move the hands on the Doomsday Clock—most likely closer to midnight.

The Bulletin is planning events on Jan 17 in London and Washington, DC (9:30 a.m. ET, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Auditorium, 1200 New York Avenue NW, Washington) Looks like they are launching a new website too. I thought their old site was quite good, so hopefully the new one will be equally useful.

The Bulletin has moved the hands seventeen times since the inception of the clock in 1947. The furthest from midnight: 17 minutes in 1991; the closest: 2 minutes from midnight in 1953 following tests of the thermonuclear weapons by the US and Russia.

I know the clock is symbolic and comparative in terms of relative closeness to midnight. So, I really shouldn’t ask how much danger a minute represents or whether it is linear—even though that is always my immediate question when reading about the clock. However, I would be very interested in another point that the clock reflects… Is the clock perceived and understood differently by The Bulletin’s Board and Sponsors today than in the 50’s? Or have the assessments of when to move the hands and how much pretty consistent?


  1. eqw

    Hmm definitely moving closer to midnight:


    There are better reasons to dislike the India deal but this stuff does clear things up.

  2. Alex W. (History)

    One question in relation to the “how it is considered” question is whether or not BAS has more or less clout and prestige now than it did in the 1950s. I tend to estimate “less,” mostly because it doesn’t have articles written by people like Hans Bethe, Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, Albert Einstein, etc., and because it tends to look like an arms-control-focused Harper’s Weekly these days, but I don’t know if that’s just my own idiosyncratic assessment of it.

    In the BAS of the 1940s you can see articles from major government officials trying to sell the scientists on their atomic policies — I haven’t kept up with BAS much lately but I am not aware of anything of that nature going on today.

    (I’m not criticizing BAS, just saying that it is hard to compete with its original roster. Of course any measurement of “clout” depends no only on who is writing for you but a number of other things as well, notably how the periodical is received and read by others. I tend to think that BAS has visually looked less respectable since it changed its format to the glossy one — it looks like any other magazine, not a specialist magazine at all — though I am usually much pickier about such things than most people.)

  3. Amit Joshi

    What would it take to make the doomsday clock go away? What level of disarmament needs to be reached so that the weapons in the possession of the nuclear states are no longer capable of destroying the entire world?

  4. Hass (History)

    Hmmm…but didn’t we just save the world from Saddam’s nukes?

    Attack Iraq soon, Sharon aide says


    NY Daily News August 16, 2002 http://www.nydailynews.com/news/wn_report/story/11577p-10983c.html

    WASHINGTON – The United States should attack Iraq soonto stop dictator Saddam Hussein from developingnuclear weapons, Israeli officials said yesterday.“Postponing the action to a later date would onlyenable Saddam to accelerate his weapons program, andthen he would pose a more formidable threat,” saidRanaan Gissin, a top adviser to Prime Minister ArielSharon.

  5. James (History)

    Bumped to five minutes to midnight for those keeping track at home.


  6. Alex W. (History)

    Amit—I had been thinking about your post a bit.

    The Doomsday Clock has never really been about raw numbers or even whether or not the capacity for an all-encompassing “doomsday” existed or not. When it was created in 1947 it was more about the potentiality of the post-Hiroshima geopolitical situation, not about raw nuclear stockpiles.

    Remember that in 1947, when the clock was first inaugerated, there were less than three dozen atomic bombs in the entire world, all in tens of kilotons yield range, all deliverable only by bombers, and all in the possession of only one nation. Worldwide destruction was not an immediate reality, but they could extrapolate the trends. And in any case you don’t need worldwide destruction to be in a miserable place — even one nuclear weapon exacts a high price.

    I think the answer to “when would it be unnecessary,” then, would be the same as when arms control journals are unnecessary in general. Which would be either when the world embraces peace and trust (aka, never), or after said nuclear salvo occurs. It is a bit too Derridean for my tastes to say that the Doomsday Clock is also a clock ticking away for its own destruction, but it’s probably not too far off the mark in this case.