Well, well, well. It’s certainly been awhile! I haven’t been living it up in bunker or visiting abandoned missile silos or defunct nuclear plants. Nothing that exciting at all. Turns out, life just got busy! But, with a new president in office and a bunch of other Cold Wary things creeping in from the wings, I thought it was a good time to once again turn my attentions to Adventures in Atomic Tourism.
A couple of years ago, I wrote this piece for McSweeney’s about the Doomsday Clock. I decided that now might be a good time to reprint it here on the blog, with a couple of necessary updates, since the wold seems to be gettin jiggy with the nuclear again. So, here’s the piece in its entirety, with additions in red. Happy reading!
It’s a great time to be alive, kids!
As you’ve likely heard (if you’re an atomic weirdo like me, anyway), the Doomsday Clock now sits at three minutes to midnight, which is the closest it’s been to midnight since the height of the Cold War. If you’re not familiar with what makes the Doomsday Clock tick, or maybe haven’t heard of it at all, you’re in luck! I’m here to answer some of your pressing questions about the Clock.
What is the Doomsday Clock?
Well, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “The Doomsday Clock is an internationally recognized design that conveys how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making.” Going a bit further, the “dangerous technologies” were nuclear weapons at the Clock’s creation, but now include things like climate changing technologies (emissions), cyber technologies (the Borg) and bio technologies (Monsanto). Basically the Clock acts as a permanent record for the middle school that is humanity.
Where did the Doomsday Clock come from?
The Clock wasn’t always some super abstract, “internationally recognized design,” but was once a real, actual clock hanging on a wall on the campus of the University of Chicago. The abstract/doomsday part was conceived of in 1947 by a group of former Manhattan Project scientists, called the Chicago Atomic Scientists. Like most groups, this group had a newsletter. The newsletter was called the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and get ready for a flashback to elementary school — the scientists mimeographed (!) copies of the newsletter in all sorts of purple goodness for distribution to members. The Doomsday Clock/“minutes to midnight” thing was originally used as a piece of cover art for the June 1947 issue of the newsletter. It was such a success with the readers that it appeared on every print edition until 2009 when the publication went entirely digital.
What time was displayed on the original Doomsday Clock?
The Doomsday Clock was set to seven minutes to midnight to reflect the world’s settling into a more peaceful (?), nuclear post-war society. I’ve had a devil of a time finding any information about why seven minutes was selected in particular. Maybe it’s because seven is lucky.
Who decides what time it is?
You do! Just kidding. The time is decided by the decidedly Big Brother-sounding Science and Security Board (part of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists group) meets twice a year to discuss world events and reset the Clock as necessary. The twice-yearly meeting prevents the Clock from reflecting doomsday-ish events in real-time, which is why the Cuban Missile Crisis (which is widely believed to be the closest we’ve been to midnight in real time) wasn’t reflected by movement of the Doomsday Clock.
Where can I visit the Doomsday Clock?
Well, I don’t really know if there is a Doomsday Clock any longer (no one from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist responded to my questions) to visit. But you can definitely visit an electronic representation of the Clock on the Bulletin’s homepage. The Doomsday Clock is now part of the group’s logo, and clicking on it launches an interactive timeline of the Clock and just oodles of information!
When and why was the Doomsday Clock moved in the past?
Well, you asked for it. Here’s a run-down:
1947 – Seven minutes to midnight – Gotta start somewhere! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
1949 – Three minutes to midnight – The Soviet Union tests its first atomic bomb. Which, if we’re going to split hairs here, we’d (US) tested and used in real life (Hiroshima and Nagasaki?) atomic bombs before this, so we’re definitely pot-kettling here.
1953 – Two minutes to midnight – Cold War is on fire! The US and Soviet Union are testing atomic weapons like they’re involved in some really high stakes game of Ping-Pong. The Nevada Test Site is seeing LOTS of action. Community and backyard fallout shelters are being built like crazy, and atomic everything is creeping into the tightest corners of society.
1960 – Seven minutes to midnight – Good job, World! Even though we came really, super close (cough Cuban Missile Crisis cough) to global thermonuclear war, we didn’t actually War Games it out, so we earned some minutes. Kind of like gold stars.
1963 – Twelve minutes to midnight – Look at us! We signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty (all atomic testing was moved underground). This means no more mushroom clouds or Survival Towns, but bring on the subsidence craters and retarcs! Not gonna lie—I’m pretty bummed about this one.
1968 – Seven minutes to midnight – We jump ahead five minutes, which is a lot. France and China enter the nuclear game, testing weapons of their own. And even though they didn’t sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty in the first place, this still scares the beejesus out of the Clock people. Apparently.
1969 – Ten minutes to midnight – Everybody in the world signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (signatories agree to non-proliferation, disarmament and the right to use peaceful nuclear technology), save India, Pakistan and Israel.
1972 – Twelve minutes to midnight – The US and Soviet Union sign the SALT I and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (all sorts of political and fancy-pants language, but basically a further ratcheting-down of nuclear weapons stockpiles).
1974 – Nine minutes to midnight – India tests the Smiling Buddha nuclear device, (which isn’t Buddha supposed to be about, you know, peace?), US and Soviet talks aren’t going anywhere and both countries make improvements to existing weapons, which is the opposite of what they’re supposed to be doing.
1980 – Seven minutes to midnight – No progress with US and Soviet talks. The US pulls out of the Summer Olympics in Moscow. (Take that, comrades!) The US government researches ways in which the US could win at War Games, but for real.
1981 – Four minutes to midnight – Shit got real enough for the Science and Security Board to meet earlier in the year than normal, and to move the Clock ahead three minutes. Reagan became president, the Soviets are in Afghanistan—basically, listen to the lyrics of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
1984 – Three minutes to midnight – Same stuff as 1981, only slightly more intense. We’ve moved on to the part of the “We Didn’t Start the Fire” video where Billy Joel yells and flips over the table.
1988 – Six minutes to midnight – The US and Soviet Union sign a treaty eliminating some nuclear missiles, and relations improve. Three minutes’ worth, anyway.
1990 – Ten minutes to midnight – The Berlin Wall comes down and that Scorpions song is playing everywhere. Come on—you know you can hear it too.
1991 – Seventeen Motherfucking Minutes to Midnight! – Peace, you guys! The US and Soviet Union sign the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which means fewer nuclear weapons all around. Nuclear testing supposedly comes to a halt, and last but not least, the Soviet Union dissolves.
1995 – Fourteen minutes to midnight – We’re still spending too much on defense, wondering what the Russians are up to, etc., so the Clock people decide to take away three minutes. Sure.
1998 – Nine minutes to midnight – India and Pakistan test atomic weapons, which I mean, they never said they wouldn’t so… the US and Russia aren’t really reducing their stockpiles like the should be.
2002 – Seven minutes to midnight – Stockpiles still aren’t being reduced and the US decides to cowboy up and won’t sign any new treaties, because, Fuck Yeah, America!
2007 – Five minutes to midnight – Crazy-pants North Korea gets in the nuclear game. Iran decides it wants to play too. There are something like 26,000 nuclear weapons out in the wild in the US and Russia, soooo yeah.
2010 – Six minutes to midnight – The Clock is no longer nuclear-only and now includes ways other than nuclear annihilation that we can destroy ourselves. (I am not a fan of this scope creep. The Clock totally jumps the shark here, IMO.) The worldwide focus on limiting climate change and renewed talks between the US and Russia (we promise we’ll finish this time, guys) give us another minute.
2012 – Five minutes to midnight – We lost a minute. Basically we’re not doing anything we said we’d do for the environment or to limit the nuclear arsenal.
2015 – Three minutes to midnight – Oh snap. Tensions between the US and Russia over Ukraine, etc., combined with lingering nuclear concerns, but this leap is more likely due to us ruining the environment (fracking! oil spills! emissions!) rather than letting our fingers hover too close and too long over the red button. Which, if I’m being honest, the once immediate annihilation awesomeness of the Doomsday Clock is gone, and this makes me sad. Now we’re left with some Birkenstocked, Subaru-driving Clock. Dad Doomsday Clock.
2017 – Two and a half minutes to midnight – Do you guys realize what a big deal this is? This announcement came last week and it’s literally taken me this long to wrap my head around it (okay, full disclosure, I also broke both of my feet last week, so I’ve had a few things on my mind). Instead of Birkenstock-wearing, Dad Doomsday Clock from two years ago, we seem to have pivoted straight back to 1953 (the only time we’ve been closer to midnight, at two minutes to) when above ground nuclear tests were the norm, both here and in Russia, backyard fallout shelters were being building was bananas and atomic everything was all the rage.
What’s scariest to me this time around is that nuclear isn’t at the forefront of most peoples’ minds right now. Nuclear war was something our parents worried about. Or at the very least isn’t something we’ve given much thought to since the 80s. Nuclear war is just kind of background radiation (haha). This combined with our new president being rather…volatile?, I worry that we could easily slip into WW III without even realizing what is happening. I dunno. It certainly is a lot to think about, and sort of takes away some of the fun of it all.
Are we all going to die in some War Games-style round of Global Thermonuclear Warfare?
I dunno. We haven’t yet. When I first wrote this piece, I honestly thought there was a much higher likelihood of us destroying ourselves in some other drawn-out, earth-killing way, but two years later, with a new government, I think the chances of a War Games scenario happening are pretty, pretty good. I mean, the Doomsday Clock seems to think so too.
Until next time!
P.S. – Look at how much the image of the Doomsday Clock scientists at the top of the post resembles this image of Doc and Marty from BTTF3. Maybe that’s why my brain subconsciously chose it.