or millennia, humans have worried about not only their own demise, but that of existence itself. We had the Great Flood of antiquity, the dire predictions around the year AD 1000, and the dreaded Y2K bug, along with multiple scares in between. As it happened, we had barely recovered from the uneventful turn of the third millennium when 9/11 shook the Doomsday Clock once again and nudged the hand closer to midnight.
On 23 January 2024 the “watchmakers” of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will once again move the hand on their Doomsday Clock, as they do every year. It’s a safe bet that we’ll end up a few seconds closer to the apocalypse.
The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947, two years after the two atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan. What few people know is that it was the brainchild of artist and designer Martyl Langsdorf, whose physicist husband worked with Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project. She was asked to design a cover for the first magazine edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
- A German political poster from August 1958.
- Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-49306-0003 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Concerned by what she was hearing from the scientists who had helped to create the bomb, who felt the burden of responsibility for informing the world about the potential consequences of their work, she developed the concept of the Doomsday Clock. She wanted to find a visual metaphor for the urgency she felt, and a pictorial representation of the little time remaining to us if we continued on our headlong race towards destruction.
It’s quite possible that we would have paid (even) less attention to the scientists that set the clock, if Martyl Langsdorf had not created this graphical bridge between the alarm sounded by scientists, and the state of the world. Between 1947, when the clock was first set at 23:53, and today, when it stands at 23:58:30, the hand of the clock has moved both backwards and forwards. In 1963 it moved back to 23:47; and in 1984 it jumped forward to 23:57. In 1990 it dropped back to 23:43, but since then it has advanced with dreadful regularity, to the point where just 90 seconds now separate us from midnight.
I’ve often wondered why no watchmakers have taken up this idea. It shouldn’t be too difficult to add a “floating” hand that hovers close to midnight – and, one would hope, sometimes further away. It would make an interesting complication, to be adjusted annually according to the announcement of the Atomic Scientists. Every time you glance at your watch, you’re reminded that it’s still five minutes to midnight and that, however much you might hope the hand will remain where it is, the time to act is now.