Jan 24, 2023 - World

What to know about 2023's Doomsday Clock announcement

Illustration of the doomsday lock with an "i" highlighted.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Every January, members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists update the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic tracker of the world's proximity to total human-caused destruction.

Driving the news: Scientists will unveil the clock's new setting on Tuesday, after a year marked by heightened fears of nuclear war stemming from Russia's war in Ukraine as well as extreme weather events.

Beginnings of the Doomsday Clock

In 1945, scientists at the University of Chicago who worked on the Manhattan Project started a newsletter called the "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists."

  • This group gathered two years later to discuss the looming threat of nuclear war.
  • "They were worried the public wasn't really aware of how close we were to the end of life as we knew it," Rachel Bronson, current president and CEO of the Bulletin, told USA Today.
  • Artist Martyl Langsdorf, the wife of Manhattan Project physicist Alexander Langsdorf, came up with the design of a clock to represent the idea of time running out to avert the danger.
  • The Doomsday Clock image was first published in 1947, in the first issue of the Bulletin published as a magazine.

Worth noting: Since 2019, a physical Doomsday Clock has sat in the lobby of the Bulletin's University of Chicago offices.

Movement of the Doomsday Clock

The Doomsday Clock's hands have been moved back and forth 24 times since 1947.

Data: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Chart: Jacque Schrag/Axios
Data: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Chart: Jacque Schrag/Axios

The big picture: The clock's hands are moved closer to midnight to suggest humanity is nearer to self-made catastrophe, and farther when that risk appears to fade.

  • When it first appeared in 1947, the clock was set at seven minutes to midnight. That's because Martyl — as she was known professionally — said "it looked good to my eye."
  • The clock's hands were first moved in 1949, to three minutes to midnight, after the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb.
  • In 1991, the clock was set to 17 minutes to midnight — the farthest it's ever been from midnight — as Cold War tensions eased and the U.S. and Soviet Union agreed to reduce their nuclear stockpiles.

State of play: In 2020, the clock's hands were moved to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest they've ever been.

  • The decision was made based on continued nuclear and climate threats, compounded by political dysfunction aided by cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns and the erosion of international treaties meant to keep such threats in check.
  • The clock's setting remained at 100 seconds to midnight in 2021 and 2022.
Who sets the Doomsday Clock?

Zoom out: In the years since Martyl came up with the clock, Bulletin editor Eugene Rabinowitch — a scientist and nuclear disarmament leader — was in charge of deciding whether the clock's hands should be moved.

  • After Rabinowitch's death in 1973, the call has been made collectively by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, who first consult with colleagues across a range of disciplines and with the Bulletin's Board of Sponsors.
  • The Science and Security Board includes scientists and experts in the fields of nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies.
  • The Board of Sponsors is also comprised of various scientists and experts, including multiple Nobel laureates, and is intended to provide expert advice on issues that intersect science and global security.
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