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'Doomsday Clock' creeps closer to midnight than it ever has in history

Angie Leventis Lourgos, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

CHICAGO -- Calling world affairs "profoundly unstable," scientists on Thursday moved the fateful minute hand of the Doomsday Clock another 20 seconds closer to midnight, signifying that humanity is more perilously near global catastrophe than any other time in recent history.

The metaphorical clock is now set to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has come to hitting the final hour -- a symbol of world annihilation -- since its inception by the University of Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947.

At a news conference in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, scientists cited U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, as well as deadlock in disarmament talks, as some of their reasons for the dire forecast. The recent rise in tensions between the United States and Iran helped confirm their decision, they said.

"We are now expressing how close the world is to catastrophe in seconds -- not hours, or even minutes," said Rachel Bronson of the University of Chicago, who serves as president and CEO of the Bulletin. "It is the closest to doomsday we have ever been in the history of the Doomsday Clock. We now face a true emergency -- an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any margin for error or further delay."

The foreboding timepiece was designed by Bulletin scientists as a harbinger of the state of international affairs, with the minute hand shifting toward or away from "doomsday" based on man-made threats to safety and security.

For the first few decades, the time was based solely on nuclear threats, but in recent years climate change and technological threats weighed heavily in the decision. The latest reset of 20 seconds was the smallest incremental time change in the clock's history; other time changes have been in increments of 30 seconds or more.

 

Even at the height of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, the minute hand was set at two minutes to midnight; the clock has never come this close to approaching the end.

The Bulletin was established in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who were part of the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bombs the United States used against Japan, weaponry that would later ignite the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

"It's very much a Chicago story," Robert Rosner, University of Chicago professor and chair of the science and security board of the Bulletin, said in a telephone interview. "It's one of the earliest examples of when scientists have come to terms with what they created. I would say the Bulletin was the very first organized attempt to come to terms with the consequences of scientific invention."

While the visual image of a clock might be simple, Rosner said the experts determining each shift of the minute hand take the decision very seriously, critically evaluating the state of international events, climate threats and how technology impacts safety and security. The Bulletin's science and security board -- which includes scientists and other experts on climate change, military affairs and technology -- meets twice a year to discuss international events, and resets the minute hand accordingly.

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