Science

The Doomsday Clock explained: What to know about the troubling timepiece

Did you know it's an actual physical clock you can visit?

The Doomsday Clock in 2021.
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists/Thomas Gaulkin

It's never good to see the word "doomsday" making the news, unless it's because of a sci-fi film. But the word comes up often in reference to the Doomsday Clock, an unnerving invention that keeps reminding us our world is in danger. But what exactly is this scary symbol, and how is it maintained and monitored? Let's break it down.

What is the Doomsday Clock?

The Doomsday Clock is pretty much what it sounds like -- a clock assessing the world's dangers, and how close we are to self-destruction. A group of scientists who publish the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the clock in 1947. And these aren't just any scientists -- the bulletin was founded by Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Eugene Rabinowitch and University of Chicago thinkers who helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project. If anyone knows the dangers facing the world, they do.

There was a print version of the bulletin until 2009, and now it's online. Every January, the group announces how much they're adjusting the clock, and why they're doing so.

What is the Doomsday Clock set at now?

The Doomsday Clock currently is set at 100 seconds to midnight. It's been set there since 2020, and didn't change in either 2021 or 2022.

When is it adjusted?

Every January, the scientists assess how close the world is to ending, in their view, and use knowledge of how things have changed to move the clock either closer or farther away from midnight. To quote Prince's prescient 1999 lyrics, the idea is that when the clock strikes 12, it's party over, oops, out of time.

Why is it adjusted?

The scientist consider a variety of factors each year, including the threat of nuclear war, the climate crisis, genetic engineering and other things marked as threats to civilization.

What's the closest the Doomsday Clock has been to doomsday?

This is it. The clock has never been closer. The most recent statement about its position notes that while there were some positive changes in 2021, it wasn't enough to reverse the negative trends, including climate change, Russia-US tensions, COVID-19 and more.

Before 2020, the closest the Doomsday Clock was to midnight was when it was set at two minutes to midnight. That happened twice -- once in 2018 due to nuclear risk and climate change dangers, and once in 1953 due to thermonuclear weapons tests by the US and USSR.

What's the farthest the Doomsday Clock has been from doomsday?

In 1991, as the Cold War ended and the US and USSR signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the Doomsday Clock sat at a  relatively safe-feeling 17 minutes from midnight

Is there a real, physical clock?

Yep, and you can visit it. The Doomsday Clock is located in the lobby of the Bulletin offices at the University of Chicago (1307 E 60th Street), in the lobby.

Pop culture and a new book

The clock has settled into pop culture, with such bands as The Who, The Clash and Smashing Pumpkins writing songs about it. It's also appeared in novels, comic books, movies and TV shows. 

If you're interested in the history of the worrisome clock, and why it's been adjusted at various historic events, a new coffee table book marking the clock's 75th anniversary comes out in spring of 2022. The Doomsday Clock at 75 delves into the clock's history and how it's impacted culture and policy.