Doomsday Clock set back by a minute

COUNTING UP: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Lawrence Krauss shows the Doomsday Clock's new setting: 11:54.
COUNTING UP: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Lawrence Krauss shows the Doomsday Clock's new setting: 11:54. (Mary Altaffer/associated Press)
By Dan Zak
Friday, January 15, 2010

Man is the only creature that knows it's going to die, and atomic scientists are the only professionals who measure the amount of time before man annihilates himself. But there is good news from those scientists: Humanity inched away from Armageddon on Thursday morning. The Doomsday Clock was set back one minute, from 11:55 to 11:54, reversing a precipitous slide toward midnight, the zero hour, ultimate self-destruction.

The clock was reset to reflect a "more hopeful state of world affairs," the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced at the New York Academy of Sciences and over a live feed on the Internet. Forty policymakers, scientists and Nobel laureates on the board of the Bulletin -- an online magazine that covers threats to humanity -- decided to move the clock after spirited debates about current trends in science and politics.

"We are poised to bend the arc of history toward a world free of nuclear weapons," the board said in a statement. "For the first time since atomic bombs were dropped in 1945, leaders of nuclear weapons states are cooperating to vastly reduce their arsenals and secure all nuclear bomb-making material. And for the first time ever, industrialized and developing countries alike are pledging to limit climate-changing gas emissions that could render our planet nearly uninhabitable."

This is the 19th time the clock has moved in 63 years. The creators of the Manhattan Project wound up the symbolic device in 1947 to remind the world of the consequences of abusing nuclear power. Since then, the clock has moved forward 11 times and back eight times. It came closest to midnight in 1953, when the testing of hydrogen bombs nudged it to 11:58, and moved furthest away in 1991, when it slid to 11:43 after the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The clock has been steadily ticking toward midnight since the mid-'90s, as increased terrorism destabilized regions of the world and India and Pakistan tested nuclear bombs.

So, atomic scientists: Are they a nervous bunch?

"I actually think most of them are optimists," says Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin. "They think human beings can channel technology and have the capacity to cooperate and tackle these problems. That's why they bother to get word out. They're not on edge."

The Bulletin's statement also cited President Obama's "pragmatic, problem-solving approach," arms reduction talks with Russia, negotiations with Iran over its nuclear enrichment program and support for a fissile material cutoff treaty at the U.N. Security Council last September, though Obama has also endured partisan challenges to his leadership on national security over the past year.

The number of nuclear weapons in the world has decreased by 4,000 over the past three years, to 23,000, according to Benedict. Regardless, Hollywood still churns out apocalyptic movies ("The Road," "2012" and "Knowing" premiered over the past 10 months), and 50 million Americans still believe the world will end in their lifetimes, according to Nicholas Guyatt, author of "Have a Nice Doomsday: Why Millions of Americans Are Looking Forward to the End of the World."

"Continuing tensions with Iran, the bad weather in Europe and especially the earthquake in Haiti will all be taken as 'end times' indicators," Guyatt, a history professor at the University of York, writes in an e-mail. "My guess is that [apocalyptic Christians] would happily move the clock forwards by a couple of minutes. The irony, of course, is that these guys -- unlike the atomic scientists -- are actually rooting for doomsday."

On the eve of the massive quake in Haiti, the Rapture Index rose to its highest point since Sept. 11, 2001, on the Web site Rapture Ready, which describes itself as the largest prophecy site on the Internet, with 240,000 unique visitors a month.

"Scientists seem to be driven by what's going on politically," says the site's founder, Todd Strandberg, who lives in Benton, Ark., calls himself an end-time believer and recalculates the index every Sunday based on man-made, natural and allegedly supernatural phenomena. "I suppose we tend to be the eternal pessimists because the Bible says it's going to get worse. So any time they move [the Doomsday Clock] back, the general reaction is scorn."

Expect another crucial prognostication soon: Next month a groundhog will divine the probability of six weeks of winter, leaving nuclear winter to the scientists and the rapture to the prophets.

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