In 1939, Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein warned President Franklin Roosevelt that Germany might be able to build an atomic bomb.
That was the impetus for the Manhattan Project, the American plan to create an atomic weapon during World War II. In June 1945, several scientists urged the secretary of war to hold a public demonstration of the bomb in an uninhabited area. The demonstration, they said, could be used to threaten Japan.
Failing in that effort, almost 70 Manhattan Project employees “circulated a second petition against the use of the weapon.” It failed as well.
By September , they had formed the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago—later shortened to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) … They shared a mission: “to equip the public, policymakers and scientists with the information needed to reduce man-made threats to our existence.”
“For the first time in modern history, scientists were saying that it was necessary to make judgments about what to do with their inventions,” according to John A. Simpson, a young UChicago scientist who had worked on the Manhattan Project and served as the first chairman of the Bulletin.
The Bulletin changed format from a newsletter to a magazine in June 1947. The first cover featured a clock designed by artist Martyl Langsdorf. Langsdorf said the design “seemed [to show] the right time … it suited my eye.”
The Doomsday Clock provided a visual representation of the threat posed by nuclear weapons, with a hypothetical global catastrophe represented by midnight.
The original setting: seven minutes to midnight.
When the Soviet Union tested a nuclear weapon in Central Asia in 1949, the scientists changed the time to three minutes to midnight.
In October 1952, the United States tested its first thermonuclear bomb. Nine months later, the Soviets tested their own.
In September 1953, only six years after trying to warn the public of the dangers of nuclear war, the scientists moved the clock hands for the second time.
It was two minutes until midnight.
Only a few more swings of the pendulum, and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for western civilization.
The continued existence of the urban, technological Westem civilization will soon hang in a precarious balance, resting almost entirely on a highly irrational and unreliable fear.
Since 1945, the trend toward a third world war and atomic annihilation has been fast and inexorable, like a destiny that fulfills itself despite all attempts of little men to divert it. It is meager satisfaction to recall that this, development was forecast, on a correct time-scale, in the writings and memoranda of atomic scientists eight years ago. At that time, they were derided as naive sentimentalists without sense of reality because they saw a much greater and more ternfylng reality than was encompassed by the field of vision of most others…
Kennette Benedict, executive director of the BAS, said that in addition to an acceleration of the arms race, “there was no communication between the two countries at all, even behind the scenes.”
It was the closest the hand would come to midnight … until January 2020.
In the intervening years, the Bulletin had begun monitoring two additional threats to civilization: climate change and disruptive technologies. “Each of these threats has the potential to destroy civilization and render the Earth largely uninhabitable by human beings.”
In January 2020, the BAS Science and Security Board set the time to 100 seconds to midnight, “largely because of worldwide governmental dysfunction in dealing with global threats.”
No change in January 2021 or January 2022.
[W]e called out Ukraine as a potential flashpoint in an increasingly tense international security landscape. For many years, we and others have warned that the most likely way nuclear weapons might be used is through an unwanted or unintended escalation from a conventional conflict. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought this nightmare scenario to life, with Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening to elevate nuclear alert levels and even first use of nuclear weapons if NATO steps in to help Ukraine. This is what 100 seconds to midnight looks like.
You can monitor the BAS interactive dashboard.
The Doomsday Clock is located in the lobby of the Keller Center, home to the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.
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Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Daily posts, 2022-2023