Time's a-ticking


On January 17 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists declared the world two minutes closer to "doomsday." Now set at five minutes to midnight, the Bulletin's Doomsday Clock is a symbolic mechanism to show the destructive nature of manmade technologies, explained Bulletin editor Jonas Siegel at the Hyde Park Borders October 6. As part of Chicago Science in the City's discussion series, Siegel and online editor Josh Schollmeyer addressed a small audience of Hyde Park locals and U of C students, giving a brief history of the clock and explaining the international climate that led the Bulletin's board of directors and sponsors to reset the clock.

The Doomsday Clock made its debut on the Bulletin's cover in 1947. Designed by artist Martyl Langsdorf—the widow of Alexander Langsdorf Jr., a Manhattan Project physicist—the clock was first set arbitrarily at seven minutes to portray urgency. Since 1949, when the Bulletin decided to mark its reaction to world events by resetting the clock, the minute hand has been moved 18 times—as close as two minutes to midnight in 1953, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs within nine months of each other.

We are now at the "dawning of a second nuclear age," Schollmeyer said; the January shift represents a "larger crisis in international relations." Events like North Korea's 2006 nuclear-weapon test, Siegel noted, are symptomatic of a shift away from international treaties and agreements, such as 1970's Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Meanwhile the U.S. and Russia, with a combined 26,000 of the world's nuclear devices, have missiles on "hair-trigger alert," Schollmeyer pointed out. A nuclear exchange could unfold within 30 to 45 minutes.

A world destroyed by nuclear warfare is no longer the only image of what Siegel called the "mythic doomsday." Climate change and biotechnology also have the potential to "drastically affect life as we know it," he noted: "Think of the idea of doomsday as Genesis in reverse, as uncreating the world."


Photos: Bulletin editors Jonas Siegel (left) and Josh Schollmeyer predict a grim future for international relations; an audience member questions the editors about nuclear weapons.

October 10, 2007