On 24 January 2023, the hands of the Doomsday Clock – repositioned each year by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to reflect existential threats facing mankind and our planet – were set to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest the clock has ever come to forewarning armageddon. The team behind the decision largely blamed the decision on the "mounting dangers in the war in Ukraine”, which has raised "profound questions" around humanity's continued existence.
In the 2021 issue of Esquire's Big Watch Book, released towards end of 2020, we spoke to Rachel Bronson, who oversees the Doomsday Clock in her role as President and CEO of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. You can read our Q&A below.
What is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists?
The Bulletin is a 75-year-old organisation that covers man-made threats to humanity. When we started, we covered nuclear issues, now we also cover climate and disruptive technology. We publish every day on these subjects. You may have heard of the Doomsday Clock, that represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe.
Why has the Clock captured our imagination?
Because it’s simple. Because it’s blunt. Big existential issues can be daunting and overwhelming; science can be intimidating and off-putting. So the Clock does what scientists are unable to do and connects with the audience, to really give them something to talk about. In the setting of the Clock we ask the experts to do something very, very uncomfortable. We ask them to set aside all nuance and say: are things getting better or worse? Or are they staying the same?
What do you mean by “nuance”?
How do you compare nuclear risk, climate change, advancements in artificial intelligence, advancements in bioengineering, lab security? Say you’re a really advanced climate scientist, how much do you know about neurology? Probably very little. The Doomsday Clock rolls up all these issues, and what we need to do is have all the experts available to debate them. It’s a judgment by experts who work on this, day-in day-out.
In January 2021, you moved the Clock to 100 seconds to midnight – the closest it’s been to Doomsday since it started in 1947.
Well, the hope is always that we move it backwards. It was a very big deal to go to two minutes to midnight [in 2018], the closest it had been since the 1950s. In 2018 we thought things were as dangerous as they were in 1953. In the 1950s we were building the technologies, and then in the 1960s and 1970s we were building an architecture to keep the technologies at bay. And there was some sense of international cooperation that together we could figure this out. It was always hard-fought and hard-won but there was commitment. The pandemic was an opportunity, a global crisis where we could have come together. And we ended up with finger-pointing and organisations walking away from the World Health Organisation.
On the upside, you’ve got to think 2021’s been a bit better! You announce the Clock position each January. What will it be next?
I think there’s been real reasons for optimism. And what science can bring us, in terms of how unbelievably quickly we can get to a vaccine and then to distribution. The Biden administration, with the Russians, have had a new start. In terms of climate and the annual UN conference, the fact that it didn’t fall apart when the United States walked away is a huge sign of success. In history we – as in we, the people – have moved the Clock away from midnight [since 1947, the Clock has been moved backwards eight times and forwards 16 times]. And we can do it again.
The kids will save us!
Right? The older generation are looking at the younger kids, like, “We’re so sorry. Your generation will work out how to fix it.” They get it. They just don’t know what to do about it. Fifty per cent of our audience is under 35 and 50 per cent is outside the United States. They’re more engaged than we were. They’re surrounded by so much existential threat, by politicians who seem to have no barriers for what kind of misinformation they’ll put out. People more than ever have a sense that things aren’t going in the right direction. We don’t seem like these crazy experts who are, like, “the sky is falling in!”
That’s an interesting way of looking at it
We get email and social media, as you’d imagine, on both sides. Sometimes someone starts, like, “You’re scaring my kids!” At the same time, I’ll get an email from someone: “Thank you for acknowledging it. Because it didn’t feel like it’s going well.” Our motivation is to get people involved. And that’s what’s going to turn back the Clock.
What about Watchmen? Pretty good, right?
Anytime the Doomsday Clock appears in popular culture it’s useful to advance discussion. We appreciate it. Not everyone is going to want to learn more after getting into the comics or watching the TV show. But our hope is that some people will and they’ll be able to find us. Or we’ll be able to find them.
Iron Maiden, Midnight Oil and Sting have all written songs about the Doomsday Clock. As if it wasn’t depressing enough.
We have a Doomsday Clock Playlist on our site! It’s back to your first question: the Doomsday Clock is accessible. It’s used at the highest levels of politics, used in classrooms, in grassroots conversations.
I actually didn’t know about Sting.
This is quite shallow, but your job title is cool.
It’s probably more often viewed as not cool than cool, but I love it. The cool part is more and more people are seeking us out and sometimes in this world, where there’s so little you feel like you can do, that’s gratifying.
Well, thank you for speaking to us.
Thank you for covering us. I don’t know if you want me to say anything about watches?
Go on then. What watch do you wear?
I recently purchased a Movado. I’m trying to think about what else I have…
Does it keep good time?
I’m very happy with it.