In June 1947, some of the scientists who had developed the first nuclear weapon for the US published a picture of a clock with the hands set at seven minutes to midnight. They warned: "If war breaks out, atomic bombs will be used, and they will surely destroy our civilization."
Two years earlier, the former Manhattan Project physicists had founded the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists—a publication and an organization with a mission to inform the public of possible catastrophe and influence nuclear policy. Since 1947, it has been tweaking the hands of the Doomsday Clock to reflect our proximity to self-destruction.
On January 26, six days after Donald Trump was inaugurated, the Bulletin moved the Doomsday Clock's hands to two and a half minutes to midnight—the closest they had been since reading 11:58 PM in 1953, after both the US and Soviet Union first tested hydrogen bombs capable of obliterating humanity. The ongoing threat of nuclear weapons and climate change, and a president who, according to the New York Times, has "promised to impede progress on both of those fronts" were reasons enough for the Bulletin to move the clock's hands 30 seconds forward from the previous two years—during which the group had described the "probability of global catastrophe" as "very high."
"It's not a scientific calculation that comes down to, 'Oh, it's X time,'" explained the editor-in-chief of the Bulletin, John Mecklin. "But that judgment," he added, "is made in an incredibly studied way." Every year, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin, which includes climate and nuclear scientists as well as international-policy experts, meets to readjust the time based on what Mecklin calls "existential risk threats" that could either "exterminate humanity or end civilization as we know it."
In 2017, humanity's preservation depends largely on preventing nuclear warfare and taking action on climate change. Trump, who has described scientific evidence that the Earth's average temperature is rising as a Chinese hoax, has so far appointed former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and a climate change skeptic with close ties to the fossil-fuel industry, Scott Pruitt, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency—a body Pruitt sued 14 times as Oklahoma's attorney general for its attempts to regulate pollution. Trump has also begun preparing to reverse Obama's climate and water-pollution policies, allowing mining companies to dump their waste into waterways. His aim, he said, is "to get rid of wasteful regulations that do absolutely nothing but slow down the economy."
Even with a competent president, it is very difficult to develop good nuclear and climate change policies: The enriched uranium needed to build nuclear-power plants increases the risk of weapon development, and global conflict, a potential outcome of climate change, could spiral into nuclear warfare. As the Bulletin's former editor Eugene Rabinowitch noted in 1947: "The justification for the intrusion of scientists into national and international affairs, is the compelling necessity for a factual, realistic attitude as the basis of political decisions."
But Trump, who has acted on what his counsellor Kellyanne Conway christened "alternative facts," has already managed 194 "false or misleading claims" at the time of press (as counted by the Washington Post). Doubt, not truth, is enough to undermine the public's trust in experts. The war on reason takes us 30 seconds closer to doom. So can the metaphor save us?
Yes, it's just a metaphor. But metaphors have power. This year, according to Mecklin, more than 10,000 media outlets mentioned the hands' movement as a harbinger of disaster. "The position of the clock has such force," explained Daniel Kevles, Stanley Woodward Professor Emeritus of History at Yale, "because the icon was established by a group of scientists, many of whom had participated in the Manhattan Project, and who campaigned after the war for civilian and international control of nuclear technologies in the Atomic Scientists movement."
This group "occupied a position in American culture akin to secular priests of conscience," added Kevles. "They were respected as such, and the icon they devised attained cultural and political significance."
But the clock, published on the cover of the first magazine edition of Bulletin, wasn't, initially, meant to be taken so literally. Its designer, Martyl Langsdorf—whose husband, Alexander Langsdorf, was a former Manhattan Project physicist and Bulletin member—said she set it at seven minutes because it "looked good to [her] eye." It was a suggestion of limited time left.
Art, acknowledged Langsdorf, had a power—unlike science—to "exploit the wonderful capacity of the human mind to comprehend wholes without seeing the parts." In a 1959 Bulletin issue themed "Science and Art," she wrote, "The artist does create new ways of feeling, and the scientist creates new ways of knowing, but they are not mutually exclusive."
"I've lived with the clock almost all my life," said Kevles, "and anytime it's been moved closer to midnight has given me a chill."