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On 24 October 1962, an American nuclear chemist, Harrison Brown, started to pen a guest editorial for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists just as the Cuban missile crisis reached its climax.
“I am writing on a plane en route from Los Angeles to Washington and for all I know this editorial … may never be published,” Brown said. “Never in history have people and nations been so close to death and destruction on such a vast scale. Midnight is upon us.”
With this dire warning, he was referring to the Doomsday Clock, which has been the Bulletin’s iconic motif since it was founded 75 years ago by Albert Einstein and some of the University of Chicago scientists from the Manhattan Project. Their work had contributed to making the atomic bomb, but many of them had been outraged when the US used it against Japanese cities.
The image of the clock ticking away to midnight was intended to convey the sense of urgent peril, which Brown felt so viscerally on that 1962 flight to Washington.
“He thought the world could end while he was on that flight,” said Rachel Bronson, the Bulletin’s current president.
On Thursday, the Doomsday Clock will be unveiled for the 75th time, and we will find out what way the Bulletin’s panel of scientists and security experts will move the minute hand. For the past two years it has been stuck at 100 seconds to midnight. With Russia poised to attack Ukraine, it is hard to imagine the clock being set back, and that means that the experts assess we are in greater danger now than ever.
The closest the clock came at the height of the cold war was two minutes to midnight in 1953 after the first detonation of a thermonuclear warhead, a hydrogen bomb.
By the time of the Cuban missile crisis, the hands were at seven minutes to, but despite Brown’s apocalyptic editorial, the Bulletin decided not to move them forward because the shock of near catastrophe had given Washington and Moscow fresh incentive to work towards risk reduction and arms control.
The furthest away from midnight the clock ever moved was 17 minutes, right at the end of the cold war. It has been slipping back towards extinction ever since. That is partly because of the increasing volatility of geopolitics, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the new existential threat of climate change, which was formally made a factor in the calculation in 2007.
The Doomsday Clock image was originally the work of Martyl Langsdorf, a noted abstract landscape artist of the era, whose husband, Alexander, was a physicist on the Manhattan Project. When he and his anxious colleagues decided to turn their mimeographed internal newsletter into a magazine in 1947, they turned to her to design the cover of the new Bulletin. She reckoned she was “the only artist they knew”.
The design was originally going to be based on a U for Uranium, but the increasingly alarmed dinner table talk among the scientists in the couple’s social circle pushed Langsdorf towards more urgent imagery.
“She took the imagery of countdowns and rocket launches and put it into a clock,” Bronson said. She added that the original time on the clock, seven minutes to midnight, “conveyed urgency, but also hope, a sense that there’s something we can do about it. We can set it back. And all of that in an image that is not language-dependent.”
It is an image designed to cut through the dense nature of the underlying science to engage the public in the issues. It has since appeared in cold war novels, episodes of Doctor Who, songs by The Who and Iron Maiden. Boris Johnson referred to the Doomsday Clock in his speech to the Cop26 summit in Glasgow in November, though he mistakenly said it was set at a minute to midnight.
“He got the time wrong, but he used it and we agree with that part of it,” Bronson said. “We at the Bulletin believe that public engagement is crucial to this. In the US, we’re about to spend $1.8tn on a new nuclear arsenal. The public has to engage on this because it’s their money.
“It’s really hard to stay engaged on an urgent issue that is 75 years old,” she added. “But it still is urgent, and through policy, and through art and through journalism, we have to be able to stave off the worst.”