One of the most famous images from the dawn of the nuclear era is back in the news: it is no longer seven minutes to midnight, but five, according to the board of directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who announced that they were moving the hands of their famed "Doomsday Clock" closer to Armageddon. The "Doomsday Clock" first made its appearance on the cover of the Bulletin in June of 1947, a kind of visual shorthand that expressed the anxiety of many nuclear scientists about the arms race that had made the world a more dangerous place through scientific progress.
In the last 60 years the hands of the timepiece now have been moved back and forth a total of eighteen times -- the extremes of the timeline have been when the hands of the clock stood at two minutes to midnight in 1953, after the Soviet Union had followed the United States in successfully testing a new level of nuclear weaponry, the hydrogen bomb; at the other end, in 1991, the hands then slipped below the fatal last quarter, when they retreated to seventeen minutes to the final hour, due to the end of the Cold War and movement toward disarmament through the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
It's always news when the Bulletin changes the clock's timing, but there was an additional news hook in this 2007 decision: the increasing threat to world survival was pegged as coming not only from nuclear events, but from such phenomena as global warming. As reported in the Chicago Tribune -- "Doomsday Clock to Start New Era" (Jeremy Manier, 1.17.07) --
. . . when the Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists unveils the first change to the Doomsday Clock in four years, the risk of a nuclear holocaust will be just one among many threats that nudge the position of the clock's portentous minute hand. The keepers of the clock have expanded its purview to include the threat of global warming, the genetic engineering of diseases and other "threats to global survival."
It may be a stretch to put nuclear weapons and climate change in the same category, but that's one way the organization is trying to keep its 60-year-old clock relevant at a time when bioterrorism and radical groups can threaten the largest nations.
Indeed, this novel aspect of the nuclear experts reaching beyond the mushroom cloud to anoint climate change as a comparable danger, was duly noted and clearly highlighted by most outlets, as in this Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news story ("The Doomsday Clock Advances Two Minutes" 1.17.07):
Add a new crop of countries dazzled by nuclear technology to other global threats such as climate change and environmental degradation and the result, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, is almost toxic.
"We stand at the brink of a second nuclear age," the board said in a statement.
The move from seven to five minutes from midnight was decided upon after scientists reviewed the current nuclear situation in combination with expected climate change, marking the first time the Doomsday Clock has ever reflected a separate world threat in addition to the bomb.
Even if, as Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg remarked, "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock has to be one of the most successful magazine public relations gimmicks of all time, right up there with Time's Person of the Year and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue" (1.17.07), the roll-out of the 2007 model was newer, bigger, and better, apocalyptically-speaking. Even still-newsworthy icons need a brush-up, it seems, whether design-wise, or content-wise, to garner sufficient attention. An added kick was gained by bypassing the traditional site for Doomsday announcements: as noted by the Chicago Tribune, "in an added bid to influence policymakers and draw an international audience, the Bulletin is moving this year's announcement from its customary place in Chicago to a dual event held in London and Washington."
The bi-lateral press events did indeed seem to generate substantial coverage in the English language world, but even with all the "doomsday clock enters a new era" emphases, it seemed to me as if the stories would have fit relatively easily within the past world of a bygone time. Yes, the emphasis on climate science was new, but the key educational lesson seemed to fit comfortably within the venerable scientific organizational chart that places nuclear physics at the top, with what physicists have to say counting for more than the words of scientists from other disciplines -- there was a literal sense in which physicists were speaking for their other colleagues, graciously deigning to share their authority and the stage (metaphorically at least).
I found most fascinating the pictures of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking from the London event, where photographers sought to couple Hawking the icon with the Bulletin's icon. Climate science may have been the newsworthy angle, but physics as arbiter was definitely a controlling visual metaphor. The photo at the left is one version, with the clock floating above somewhat like a heavenly image of doom; at the right is a different take, which very nearly manages to juxtapose the two, tightly framing the machine-bound thinker and the message that we have but five minutes of future to go before time expires and our brief history along with it. The third photograph, which accompanied an online bbc news article ("Climate Resets the 'Doomsday Clock' " by Molly Bentley, 1.17.07) manages to get the shot that everyone must have been after, whether conscious of it or not: the physicist's face and the timepiece's face, melded together in a doubly powerful dose of symbolism, his head held at nearly the same angle of incidence (so to speak) as the minute hand as it closes the gap counting down to the zero hour, literally overshadowing the scientific mind in the foreground.
Rather like nuclear physicist announcements of decades past, men appeared to dominate the photographic spotlight, whether through pictures of Hawking from London or by pulling old file photos featuring a male hand on the clock (for example, to the left; from Alaska Report, using a Reuters file image). In Washington, Bulletin Executive Editor and political scientist Kennette Benedict was also part of the stage presence, along with Ambassador Thomas Pickering and physicist Lawrence Krauss. These pictures tended to feature her rather awkwardly, as with this one that peers at her off in the distance fussing with unveiling the new time, with the men looking on as she finishes with the stagecraft. It looks somewhat like every tedious office meeting with middle management that you've ever had to sit through as they fuss with the flow charts. It just doesn't have the same authoritative impact as the others, diffusing the visual warning that the end of the world is nigh.
But the black-and-white analog 1950s feel to this news event also stems from the endless reiteration of the "doomsday" theme. Now the idea of doomsday has a long lineage -- one of my favorite examinations of the cultural resonance of this theme is Daniel Wojcik's The End of the World as We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America (which includes discussions of secular apocalyptic themes in the nuclear era as well), and of course the idea of doomsday stretches back millennia -- but in the years after World War II, the growing awareness of the unprecedented destructive power created through atomic science -- especially with the H-bomb -- gave the doomsday scenario a new grasp on life (so to speak). As Wojcik argues:
The concept of a meaningless apocalypse brought about by human or natural causes is a relatively recent phenomenon, differing dramatically from religious apocalyptic cosmologies. Instead of faith in a redemptive new realm to be established after the present world is annihilated, secular doomsday visions are usually characterized by a sense of pessimism, absurdity, and nihilism. (p. 97)
The Doomsday Clock was an apt image for scientists to reach for in a Doomsday world circa 1947 / 1953 in which scientists saw it as their responsibility to blast the populace (and the policy-makers) out of what they saw as a complacent response of willful ignorance in the face of daily emergency; to the extent that scientists still address the public in such stark and urgent terms when informing them of scientific opinion on matters such as nuclear proliferation or global warming, then the Doomsday Clock certainly remains a relevant symbol. But if the Doomsday Clock is an accurate visual shorthand for the longer, more complex scientific arguments that undergird it, this does not necessarily mean it is (or was?) an effective communication device, in terms, at least, of engaging the public in a meaningful discussion of risk assessment, scientific expertise, political realities, and democratic decision-making.
A few years back I opened a discussion with the students in my history of modern science course about the continuing relevance of nuclear issues as a political matter by taking them through the timeline of the Doomsday Clock, and asking them to draw a picture of their own clock, and then write about what they thought the time should be and why. I was surprised to learn that many students resented what they saw as the manipulative nature of physicists choosing the last 15 minutes before midnight as their starting point. Many of them argued for placing the hands at 9:00 or 10:00 or 11:00 -- not because they were insisting that nuclear weapons were of little importance, but because they believed that their own starting points placed more faith in the power of human beings to maneuver within difficult straits. It might still be night, but we had been pushing back against the darkness and we were not at the last gasps before a total loss of control, of options, of hope. They were looking to be empowered, not diminished, as a motivation toward action.
In the eyes of the Bulletin scientists, no doubt my students would seem naive in rejecting the "minutes to midnight" framework. The Bulletin has an incredible amount of international political experience at their fingertips and intellectual mindpower at their disposal -- as the Bulletin's press release notes, the decision of the "BAS Board of Directors was made in consultation with the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates." It is true that there were no Nobel Laureates on my class roll that year. But I believe that these students were articulating an important reality, one that places the thinking of their generation at odds with the cold war mechanics out of which the "Doomsday Clock" is constructed, and where the "two cultures" norm holds sway [the expression itself a cold war era contribution by C.P. Snow]: brilliant scientific minds needing to get the attention of inattentive or lesser minds (such as those with a shaky grasp of the second law of thermodynamics as Snow suggested) by prophesying immediate doom. In a recent article, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists called their symbol "The People's Clock." After listening to my students, I don't think I would agree.
In his book Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema, author Christopher Frayling contends that:
Up until quite recently, real-life senior scientists have tended to present themselves like bewigged judges in court -- remote, out of touch, unconsultative, much given to pontificating and immune from criticism. And senior scientists have wondered why the public does not follow them every step of the way! Now there is much more consultation and much more emphasis on communications skills, but these tend to be confined to set-piece platforms or media debates in which the rhetoric of horror films -- on both sides -- takes over from serious discussion. 'Seeing into the mind of God' or 'destroying the planet' or 'my statistics are better than your statistics' or dismissive comments about lay people in the name of public understanding of science, tend to be the resulting headlines. (p. 226)
It is easier to re-animate old patterns of discourse, rather than to try, in a later phrase of Frayling's, to "break the flow" and find new forms of engagement. But if the public is truly to be a partner in a scientific conversation about pressing issues, then new strategies of discursive detente need to be deployed. In fact it may be time -- it may be past time -- to do so.
For more: The Jan/Feb 2007 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has a very nice two-page layout on the history of the clock (even if I take exception with the title of the article), including a reminiscence from the artist, Martyl, who first created the image. There's an interesting historical artifact from Time Magazine online: a 1964 article entitled "Turning Back the Clock," which states that since "now there is less concern about Armageddon and less shock value to the power of the atom, the clock is ticking mostly for the Bulletin. Its funds low, the magazine is once more passing the hat." And speaking of whether or not the clock is outdated, Dood Abides at Unconfirmed Sources plays with the file photo of the Doomsday Clock to present, a new, shiny digital version for the 21st century :-) For more of Stephen Hawking's dire pronouncements about the fate of the human race, see "Prophet of Doomsday: Stephen Hawking, Eco-Warrior" by Geoffrey Lean in the Independent, 1.27.07. For an interesting undergraduate conversation by students from different majors about the "two cultures" idea, see this panel discussion, "The Two Cultures: Students Speak their Minds," from the University of Colorado.
Images: The very first image is from the homepage of the Bulletin, at https://www.thebulletin.org/; the original 1947 cover is from the Los Alamos National Laboratory Research Library, online at https://library.lanl.gov/libinfo/news/images/BulletinAS-cover.jpg. The first Hawking image is from the Telegraph ("Hawking: Doomsday Clock Closer to Midnight" 1.18.07) at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/01/17/nclock117.xml; the second Hawking image is from the CBC article at https://www.cbc.ca/news/background/nuclearweapons/doomsday-clock.html; and the third image from the BBC is at https://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6270871.stm. The file photo shown on the Alaska Report is at https://www.alaskareport.com/reu77351.htm while the trio photo from the DC press conference was carried on an msnbc.com article "Doomsday Clock Moves Closer to Midnight" https://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16670369/.