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The Doomesday Clock

The Doomsday Clock was set up in 1947, early in the nuclear age, created largely because of the threat of the apocalyptic annihilation of civilisation as we know it. Back then it was set at 17 minutes to midnight—or zero hour—meaning . . . The End. Earlier this year (2021) the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced it had been kicked forward another twenty seconds, to 100 seconds before midnight. In the seventy-four years since it was established, this is the first time the clock—The Clock—has shown less than two minutes to midnight.

According to the Bulletin’s website, ‘(It) 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. 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.’

In the years since, these scientists—and they have featured the most illustrious names from every branch of science—have added other areas of threat and danger. These include ‘climate change/global warming/threats from greenhouse gases’ (whatever you prefer to call it), ‘cyber attacks’, and ‘threats from artificial intelligence, and the misuse of genetic engineering’, among their deliberations and subsequent calculations. Those, and the ever present nuclear, are the things represented by the symbol of the Doomsday Clock.

Simple and graphic, the Clock is the kind of thing that scares the hell out of children, a lot of young adults, and many older adults as well. Especially when the hands that hover over the nuclear button and take far-reaching decisions on those other matters belong to people, some of whom you wouldn’t buy a used car from, or trust to take your dog for a walk, or allow to babysit your daughter or son.

On March 1st, 1955 Winston Churchill gave an emotive and passionate farewell address to the British House of Commons. You can find his words in Hansard, Britain’s record of Parliamentary debate and discussion.

“What ought we to do? Which way will we turn to save our lives and the future of the world? It does not matter so much to old people; they are going soon anyway, but I find it poignant to look at youth in all its activity and ardour and, most of all, to watch little children playing their merry games, and wonder what would lie before them if God tired of mankind. . . .”

Back then, not long after the advent of the Hydrogen Bomb, the Doomsday Clock stood at two minutes to midnight. But Churchill’s message was not entirely pessimistic, for he went on—more in hope perhaps than anything else—to say:

“. . . There is time and hope if we combine patience and courage. . . . The day may dawn when fair play, love for one’s fellow men, respect for justice and freedom, will enable tormented generations to march forth serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.”

Sir Llewellyn Woodward, in 1955 a Professor at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University, wrote an article he titled “By Man Came Death”. In a wide review of the age, and the centuries of human development that had preceded it, he wrote:

“We must not delude ourselves into thinking that, having eaten this dangerous fruit of the Tree of Knowledge—human beings will suddenly grow politically wiser, and morally more responsible.”

We tend too often to equate human knowledge with wisdom, and to consider it cumulative—each successive generation benefitting from the combined achievements (and progress) of its precedents. It is not.


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