‘The Doomsday Clock Was Moved to 90 Seconds to Midnight … The Closest It’s Ever Been’
On January 24 2022, the hashtag #DoomsdayClock trended on Twitter; this seemed to be the result of several organizations and accounts referencing the “Doomsday Clock,” which was “moved to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it’s ever been”:
The Doomsday Clock was moved to 90 seconds to midnight today, Jan. 24, the closest it's ever been.
The Doomsday Clock is a decades-long project of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists featuring a clock face where midnight represents Armageddon. https://t.co/uG9vmchRXK pic.twitter.com/IFM1gmIjjT
— USA TODAY Graphics (@usatgraphics) January 24, 2023
90 seconds to midnight – the closest we've ever been to annihilation.#DoomsdayClock https://t.co/AGx458sWEo pic.twitter.com/e0p4B3LmgK
— Mark Rees (@reviewwales) January 24, 2023
Doomsday clock advances to 90 seconds to midnight — the closest to apocalypse it's ever been https://t.co/2qRlfIEkn1
— Live Science (@LiveScience) January 24, 2023
The Doomsday Clock has moved to 90 seconds before midnight, the closest it has ever been.
— unusual_whales (@unusual_whales) January 24, 2023
So what is the “Doomsday Clock,” and why did it change in January 2023?
History of the ‘Doomsday Clock’
In January 2021, the University of Chicago’s uchicago news published an “explainer” on the “Doomsday Clock,” starting with its nuclear origins:
The Doomsday Clock is a symbol that represents how close we are to destroying the world with dangerous technologies of our own making. It warns how many metaphorical “minutes to midnight” humanity has left. Set every year by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, it is intended to warn the public and inspire action.
When it was created in 1947, the placement of the Doomsday Clock was based on the threat posed by nuclear weapons, which Bulletin scientists considered to be the greatest danger to humanity. In 2007, the Bulletin began including catastrophic disruptions from climate change in its hand-setting deliberations.
The furthest the clock has been set was 17 minutes to midnight, in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Until recently, the closest it had ever been set was at two minutes to midnight—first in 1953, when the U.S. and Soviet Union both tested thermonuclear weapons, and then in 2018, citing “a breakdown in the international order” of nuclear actors, as well as the continuing lack of action on climate change.
Then, in 2020, the clock moved the closest it has ever been: 100 seconds to midnight.
That excerpt provided information about several aspects of the “Doomsday Clock,” a metaphor or symbol for how close humanity is to “destroying the world with technologies of our own making.” As mentioned above, it was introduced in 1947 in response to the deployment of nuclear weapons in World War II, and was “intended to warn the public” and “inspire action.”
The University of Chicago indicated the “Doomsday Clock” was “set every year” (presumably in January, when the explainer was published), and that in 2020, “the clock moved the closest it has ever been” to midnight, at “100 seconds.”
What is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists?
In the explainer excerpted above, the University of Chicago noted that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was “a group formed by Manhattan Project scientists at the University of Chicago who helped build the atomic bomb but protested using it against people,” adding:
[Physicist Leo] Szilard and many other Manhattan Project scientists immediately met [after the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945] to discuss how to inform the public about science and its implications for humanity. By September , they had formed the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago—later shortened to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as its membership grew. They shared a mission: “to equip the public, policymakers and scientists with the information needed to reduce man-made threats to our existence.”
“For the first time in modern history, scientists were saying that it was necessary to make judgments about what to do with their inventions,” according to John A. Simpson, a young UChicago scientist who had worked on the Manhattan Project and served as the first chairman of the Bulletin.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ website (thebulletin.org) included an “About Us” section, providing a similar history of the initiative:
The Bulletin began as an emergency action, created by scientists who saw an immediate need for a public reckoning in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki [in 1945]. One mission was to urge fellow scientists to help shape national and international policy. A second mission was to help the public understand what the bombings meant for humanity.
These scientists anticipated that the atom bomb would be “only the first of many dangerous presents from the Pandora’s Box of modern science.” They were all too correct. Humanity now faces additional threats from greenhouse gases, cyber attacks, and the misuse of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.
The Bulletin’s Doomsday Clock serves as a vivid symbol of these multiplying perils, its hands showing how close to extinction we are. With the energy of words and ideas, we seek to motivate our audience to acknowledge emerging threats, manage their dangers and turn back the hands of the Doomsday Clock.
What Happened With the Doomsday Clock in January 2023?
Wikipedia’s entry on the Doomsday Clock provided a brief recap of the Doomsday Clock’s previous statuses and whether it has a baseline time (it did not):
The clock’s original setting in 1947 was seven minutes to midnight. It has since been set backward eight times and forward 16 times for a total of 24, the farthest from midnight being 17 minutes in 1991, and the nearest being 90 seconds, from 2023 to the present.
The clock was moved to two and a half minutes in 2017, then forward to two minutes to midnight in January 2018, and left unchanged in 2019. In January 2020, it was moved forward to 100 seconds before midnight. The clock’s setting was left unchanged in both 2021 and 2022. In January 2023, it was moved forward to 90 seconds before midnight. Since 2010, the clock has been moved forward four minutes and thirty seconds, and has changed by five minutes and thirty seconds since 1947.
The Clock’s setting is decided without a specified starting time. The Clock is not set and reset in real time as events occur; rather than respond to each and every crisis as it happens, the Science and Security Board meets twice annually to discuss global events in a deliberative manner. The closest nuclear war threat, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, reached crisis, climax, and resolution before the Clock could be set to reflect that possible doomsday
As indicated in the tweets embedded above, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists “moved the clock” to “90 seconds to midnight.” On January 24 2023, the Bulletin issued a statement, “A time of unprecedented danger: It is 90 seconds to midnight.”
It began by describing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the primary reason they “moved” the hands of the clock:
A time of unprecedented danger: It is 90 seconds to midnight
This year , the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward, largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine. The Clock now stands at 90 seconds to midnight—the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.
The war in Ukraine may enter a second horrifying year, with both sides convinced they can win. Ukraine’s sovereignty and broader European security arrangements that have largely held since the end of World War II are at stake. Also, Russia’s war on Ukraine has raised profound questions about how states interact, eroding norms of international conduct that underpin successful responses to a variety of global risks.
And worst of all, Russia’s thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons remind the world that escalation of the conflict—by accident, intention, or miscalculation—is a terrible risk. The possibility that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high.
A separate press release from the group mentioned climate change as another factor in their decision to change the clock:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – January 24, 2023 –The Doomsday Clock was set at 90 seconds to midnight, due largely but not exclusively to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the increased risk of nuclear escalation. The new Clock time was also influenced by continuing threats posed by the climate crisis and the breakdown of global norms and institutions needed to mitigate risks associated with advancing technologies and biological threats such as COVID-19.
Rachel Bronson, PhD, president and CEO, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said: “We are living in a time of unprecedented danger, and the Doomsday Clock time reflects that reality. 90 seconds to midnight is the closest the Clock has ever been set to midnight, and it’s a decision our experts do not take lightly. The US government, its NATO allies and Ukraine have a multitude of channels for dialogue; we urge leaders to explore all of them to their fullest ability to turn back the Clock.”
On January 24 2023, executive chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Jerry Brown authored a CNN opinion piece about the group’s new “Clock time.” It concluded:
While these threats are immediate and horrific, there are others. Countries in both Asia and the Middle East are talking about building nuclear arsenals. Tensions are escalating between the US and China.
At the same time, the world is increasing its use of fossil fuels and spewing heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Covid-19 is still killing huge numbers of people and mutating in dangerous new ways — with future pandemics a near certainty. As science advances, so too do the threats, both in biosecurity and disruptive technologies.
If there was ever a time for world leaders to take actions to turn back the Clock, it’s now. Until then, it is 90 seconds to midnight.
Isn’t This Doomsday Clock Thing Kind of Subjective, Then?
That’s a fair assessment, as one user observed when #DoomsdayClock trended in January 2023:
I apologize if that sounded harsh, you have to understand that my issue with the Doomsday Clock is that I think they should take their endless fearmongering bullshit alarmism and shove it all the way up their fucking asses.
— Jason Pargin, author of John Dies at the End, etc (@JasonKPargin) January 24, 2023
Threaded responses included:
“My main issue with it is that the world can be constantly getting worse without the catharsis of a doomsday[.]”
“I looked to see if anything new happened, but no this is just an overall reaction to stuff that happened like 10 months ago when the Russians started digging trenches before getting their teeth kicked in in the irradiated zone[.]”
“It’s a dumb concept, clocks only move one way.”
In January 2018, the New York Times published a headline resembling those in January 2023 — “Doomsday Clock Is Set at 2 Minutes to Midnight, Closest Since 1950s.” One section mentioned “critics” of the Doomsday Clock:
The clock does not lack for critics. For example, some say that warning people of danger actually induces political paralysis. Others question the judgments of the expert panel that oversees the clock — the bulletin’s science and security board — including the finding that the safest moment was in 1991, right after the Cold War had ended.
The bulletin’s scientists did not seem unduly alarmed in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which, along with the early 1980s, was one of the moments when the United States and the Soviet Union came closest to catastrophic blows.
“One of the things about the clock is that it doesn’t change in response to individual events,” Lawrence M. Krauss, a cosmologist at Arizona State University and a member of the board, said in a phone interview on [in January 2018]. “It’s really hard to compare, in an absolute sense,  to 1953. More important is whether the clock is closer to or farther from midnight. Is this year more dangerous than last?”
A Slate.com editorial, “What The Doomsday Clock Doesn’t Tell Us,” was subtitled “Putting humanity on a permanent, blanket high-alert isn’t helpful when it comes to policy or science.” It began with a description of a news cycle identical to the one on January 24 2023:
Since the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sent out a press release [on January 25 2018], the New York Times, the BBC, the Washington Post, and countless other outlets have reported that the Doomsday Clock now reads just 2 minutes to midnight, the closest we’ve been to nuclear apocalypse since the Cold War. While the symbol of imminent destruction might seem apt in our current overly-anxious political climate, the minute hand has been creeping forward incrementally for years (yes, even pre-Trump), and it’s been primed at T-10 minutes or less to Doomsday since 1998. In light of this perpetual crisis mode, it seems worth asking: What does the Doomsday Clock actually tell us?
The short answer is not much.
The piece posited that “the clock’s logic is neither precise nor especially incisive,” referencing gene-editing as a newer concern for which “the authors decline to explain how or to what extent its existence brings us closer to catastrophe beyond a vague allusion to ‘possible misuse’ of the technology.” Slate.com’s coverage also observed:
… the very name “Doomsday Clock”—and its ongoing association with nuclear apocalypse—defies nuance. The approach fails in its stated purpose of advancing the public understanding of these very disparate threats when it flattens them into one measurement by design.
On January 24 2023, several news outlets engaged in an annual tradition, reporting that the Doomsday Clock moved to 90 seconds to midnight, “the closest it’s ever been.” Each January, reports about the Doomsday Clock appeared, in response to cyclical updates provided by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Doomsday Clock is a metaphorical measurement of risks posed to humanity, by humanity, and its measurements were subjective at best. Nothing specific occurred in January 2023 to warrant a change, which was primarily attributed to ongoing conflict in Ukraine.