What is the doomsday clock?

18 June 2019

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Question

What's the doomsday clock, and what does it mean?

Answer

Haydn - I love the Doomsday Clock. I think it's a great, great symbol of our impending doom or what we can do about it.

Chris - You’re an optimist!

Haydn - The Doomsday Clock is a clock with the hour hand on twelve-midnight and then the minute hand is showing, is it 15 minutes to midnight? Is it 10 minutes to midnight? Where if it's on midnight then everything's gone very badly indeed. It was set up by something called the ‘Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’, who were a group of people who worked on the bomb in the second world war and felt pretty bad about what they had brought into existence. Oppenheimer famously said after the first atomic bomb test, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” They were feeling pretty bad about what they did. They thought they should warn people about the dangers of this new weapon so they created this great visual representation of risk and they've been doing it for the last 70 years.

It was the closest it's ever been to midnight, two minutes to midnight in 1953, when the first really big new type of nuclear weapon, the thermo-nuclear weapon, was exploded and then it was very close, of course, again in the Cuban Missile Crisis… Very close again in the early 80s but then at the end of the Cold War it was put back over 10 minutes because things were getting safer. There was a reduction in tension but then over the last couple of decades they've added in other threats to the world. Things like climate change and things like new technologies. So I've got a question for you, what do you think the time currently is?

Chris - Five-to-twelve? Ten-to-twelve? I think  climate change is huge. Climate change coupled with human population expansion is a huge risk. I'd say it's five-to-twelve.

Haydn - What do you think, Ljiljana?

Ljiljana - I'm a little bit more optimistic so I we'll go eleven-to-twelve…

Haydn - Well unfortunately it's much worse than you think. It's currently set at two-minutes-to-midnight, which is the joint closest with 1953 that it's ever been.

Chris - And is that attributable to the risks I'm suggesting? Things like population climate change and so on.

Ljiljana - And is it also accounting for new technologies that could help us to resolve this?

Haydn - Yes. I mean it's not exactly a strictly scientific thing but they are trying to account for all of those things. It's because of our new biotechnology, things to do with artificial intelligence, machine learning but mostly it's been driven over the last few years by how things have got worse in the nuclear zone. It was set at two-minutes-to-midnight last year and then this year they didn't move any closer to midnight but they didn't want to say everything's fine, everything's holding steady. They've described it as the ‘new abnormal’. We're currently living in the new abnormal and desperately need to get that minute hand further away from it.

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