Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “The Doomsday Clock,” 1947-present, Installation, Dimensions variable. Shanghai Himalayas Museum installation view, 2017

 

“The Doomsday Clock” first appeared as a graphic for the inaugural cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as part of the black and white newsletter’s transition to a full-fledged magazine. For its first cover, the editors sought an image that represented a seriousness of purpose and
an urgent call for action. The Clock, and the countdown to midnight that it implied, fit the bill perfectly. “The Doomsday Clock,” as it came to be called, has served as a globally recognized arbiter of the planet’s health and safety ever since.

In 1947, there was one technology with the potential to destroy the planet, and that was nuclear power. Today, rising temperatures, resulting from the industrial-scale burning of fossil fuels, will change life on Earth as we know it, potentially destroying or displacing it from significant portions of the world, unless action is taken today and in the immediate future. Future technological innovation in biology, artificial intelligence, and the cyber realm may pose similar global challenges.

In response to a darkening global security landscape, on January 26, 2017, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved “The Doomsday Clock” up to two and a half minutes to midnight. This is the closest the Clock has been to midnight, representing nuclear or existential catastrophe, since the early 1980s. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Clock; its continued relevance speaks to the need for a symbolic indicator of the dangers facing our planet, serving as a reminder of the importance of constant vigilance.

In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.


Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists who could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work. The organization’s early years chronicled the birth of the scientists’ movement, as told by the men and women who built the atomic bomb and then lobbied with both technical and humanist arguments for its abolition.

In 1947, Bulletin editors asked artist Martyl Langsdorf to come up with a design for the cover of the first issue, published as a magazine rather than a newsletter. Martyl – as she was known professionally – listened to the scientists who had worked on the Bomb as they passionately debated the consequences of the new technology. Feeling their sense of urgency, she sketched a clock to suggest that we didn’t have much time left to get atomic weapons under control.

The founders of the Bulletin believed the atom bomb was the first of many dangerous presents from the “Pandora’s box of modern science.” Today, the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board gathers annually to determine the time on the Doomsday Clock in an effort to focus the world’s attention on the most pressing global threats: nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies.

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