It’s been called a global alarm clock, and for 77 years now, it’s been ticking like a time bomb. Its hands have been set and reset more than 25 times, sometimes backwards, but too often they creep ever forward to oblivion. How close is that clock to going off now?
That’s the question posed every year by the keepers of the Doomsday Clock. It isn’t an actual clock, but the time bomb it’s wired to — the Earth and everyone on it — is all too real. And according to the clock keepers, it’s close to exploding.
If that all sounds overly dramatic, well, it’s meant to be. That’s because the Doomsday Clock is an urgent warning to humanity, a metaphorical yet nevertheless ominous countdown to existential midnight, the end of the world as we know it.
Who Created the Doomsday Clock?
Einstein and Oppenheimer (Courtesy U.S. Government Defense Threat Reduction Agency/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)
Devised and kept by the nonprofit Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the idea behind the clock is to remind the general public, policymakers, and other scientists “how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making,” and to advance discussions and ideas for reducing human-made threats to our own extinction, according to the organization’s mission. Every January, the Bulletin’s decision-makers convene to announce the clock’s new setting, if there is one (sometimes there isn’t).
First Atomic Explosion, 1945 (Credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)
When the Doomsday Clock was first conceived in 1947, nuclear weapons were the technology of greatest concern to the Bulletin, whose founders included Manhattan Project alums. Early leaders and contributors included some of the field’s most noteworthy names: Albert Einstein, for example, created the organization’s first board of sponsors. J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as “the father of the atomic bomb,” was the first chairman of that board.
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Oppenheimer also “advocated for an ethic that acknowledges both the social benefits and potential dangers of scientific advancement. Some of this advocacy he did directly in the pages of the Bulletin,” noted Bulletin president Rachel Bronson, in a statement about Oppenheimer.
Why Does the Doomsday Clock Move?
Climate change demonstrators. (Credit: Tint Media/Shutterstock)
Over time, other issues besides nuclear proliferation have helped inform the organization’s temporal deliberations. In 2007, for example, climate change first played a role in the setting of the hands (at five minutes to midnight). More recently, the Bulletin cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a new factor in determining the setting of the clock.
Over the years, though, the Bulletin has also moved the hands back several times, often in response to improved relations between super-powers, as evidenced by arms-reduction treaties. In 1991, the hands sat at 17 minutes to midnight, the furthest away ever, thanks to the end of the Cold War and the signing of the START treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. By 2023, however, the Bulletin’s science and security board elected to set the hands at 90 seconds to midnight — as close as those metaphorical hands have so far come to striking 12.
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“We are living in a time of unprecedented danger, and the Doomsday Clock time reflects that reality … it’s a decision our experts do not take lightly,” said Bronson during that year’s announcement. In addition to ongoing concerns about the threats of nuclear war and climate change, Bulletin leaders cited Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a particularly compelling reason for this historical setting of the clock.
What Time Is It on the Doomsday Clock?
It’s 90 seconds to midnight. (Image courtesy of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
For 2024, the Bulletin elected to keep the clock set at 90 seconds to midnight.
“The risks of last year continue with unabated ferocity, and continue to shape this year,” said Bronson, in a news conference announcing the decision to keep the hands so perilously close to 12.
In addition to issues cited last year, Bronson and other members of the Bulletin‘s science and security board highlighted the ongoing climate crisis, with 2023 being the hottest year on record. They also spotlighted continuing conflicts, including the recent Israel-Hamas war, and even pointed to the rise of AI as a disruptive technology and potentially existential threat.
“Make no mistake,” Bronson noted in the Bulletin‘s announcement: Keeping the clock at its current setting “… is not an indication that the world is stable. Quite the opposite.”
The End Is Nye?
The end doesn’t have to be nigh, says Bill Nye. (Image courtesy of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
Over the decades, the Doomsday Clock has become a fixture in popular culture, evoked in numerous songs, films, comics, and other venues. Every January, the Bulletin holds a new press conference to announce the next setting of the clock. And those annual settings are attended with a kind of fretful enthusiasm — a bit like Groundhog Day, if Punxsutawney Phil was the herald of nuclear winter, with no spring ever to come again.
These events typically offer comments from various science and policy luminaries to underscore the Bulletin‘s message. For example, this year’s conference included popular science educator Bill Nye, who underscored the need for ordinary citizens to become more aware of and involved in analyzing and discussing the global concerns that affect the clock’s settings. “When I look at [the Doomsday Clock], that is a conversation piece,” Nye said. “It’s set up to get people talking about these issues.”
Still, critics of the clock — and there are many, spread across both the political and scientific landscape — dismiss the whole concept as fear-mongering theater, not the sort of thing you’d expect from an organization created by scientists.
Historically, opponents have also taken the Bulletin to task for its methodology in setting the clock, which is seen as imprecise, difficult to quantify and even capricious. (Clock detractors like to point out that the initial 1947 setting, at seven minutes to midnight, was chosen merely because its original designer, artist Martyl Langsdorf, thought “it looked good to my eye.”)
How close is the Doomsday Clock to midnight this year? (Image courtesy of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
Nevertheless, supporters and the Bulletin itself maintain that the clock is an iconic metaphor, “a reminder of the perils we must address if we are to survive on the planet,” according to the website.
Meanwhile, the Doomsday Clock ticks on, closer to midnight than ever before, but still not quite reaching it. And that, says Nye, is cause for hope. “We can solve these problems,” he said. But he added: “You gotta be optimistic — or you’re not gonna get anything done!”
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This article has been updated. Portions of this story were originally published on Jan. 20, 2022.