Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Stopping the Clock

| January 19, 2012

Scientists hope 'the people' will spread the Doomsday word.

IF A doomsday clock chimes in an obscure science journal does it make a sound?

The board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists last week announced in its magazine it had moved its notorious Doomsday Clock one minute closer to, well, doomsday. It's now 11:55, up (or down) from 2010's more optimistic 11:54. But the fact we are now 60 seconds closer to midnight — that is, to oblivion — barely registered a notice. And that's a shame.

Obviously, we do not need to be reminded that things are tough out there. And admittedly, when the smart scientists decided to add global warming and biological harms to the clock's matrix in 2007, their previous laser focus on nuclear Armageddon lost its impact. Their explanation of why things have gotten one minute worse is a laundry list that includes nuclear proliferation, Iran, Japan's nuclear disaster and its effects on nuclear power investments, carbon emissions, and virulent strains of viruses that can be used for lethal purposes. Talk about diluting the brand.

But the biggest surprise of this year's announcement that we are a tick-tock closer toward obliteration is the bulletin's unprecedented appeal for grass-roots backers. The most serious and austere journal publication, founded by scientists linked to the Manhattan Project, has gone all Occupy on us.

"We ask other scientists and experts to join us in engaging ordinary citizens" to convince governments that time is a-ticking, reads the Bulletin's parting entreaty to readers. And just to make sure you know what they have in mind, the journal authors added: "The power of people is essential," pointing to and praising the Arab Spring, Russian protests, and the Occupy movements.

It's a long way from game theory and containment.

Now, the bulletin has never been accused of reading like Mother Jones magazine, but it may have revived the clock's relevancy by begging for public participation. While continuing to be masters of doom, the directors seem acutely aware that in an interconnected world, great announcements from the mountaintop from a bunch of smart scientists don't have the same impact as they did decades ago. Wanting to get with it, so to speak, the board is urging the world's citizens to express their frustration with all that has gone wrong with their governments.

This is a far cry from the clock's beginnings.

In 1947, with the advent of the Cold War, the clock first appeared at 11:53. Reflecting progress and failure on the nuclear front, mostly between the two superpowers, the clock ebbed and flowed with major moments in nuclear history measured in treaties signed and conventions violated. The clock has always set great store in formal diplomacy, an affinity that seems antiquated in a much faster age when progress, or doom, is often measured in seconds.

It may be that the smart scientists' appeal to citizens is a direct reflection of the fact that potential nuclear, environmental, and biological disasters have become shockingly democratic as well. The current focus may be on Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but according to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, "substantial quantities of highly enriched uranium" exist in 40 non-weapons states. Backyard hobbyists can use fragments of genetic material to engineer deadly bioweapons. Lone terrorists may be seeking nuclear materials. Major companies threaten all manner of wildlife and pristine shores.

Maybe doomsday clocks, like color codes for terrorism threats, are a relic of the past. And there is something quaint about measuring doom in a publication that only comes out every other month. After all, in 1962, showing a strange allegiance to magazine deadlines, the clock missed our truest test of nuclear brinkmanship, the Cuban Missile Crisis, because the entire event was settled before the board could move the minute hand.

But since this one did just chime, here's what could be heard: Even those scientists watching for the end think it's up to us, and not the government, to stop the clock before it hits midnight. Their desperate hope is that "the people" are listening.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“Stopping the Clock.” The Boston Globe, January 19, 2012.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem