How many minutes until Doomsday?

By Daniel Holz | January 13, 2010 11:05 pm

Doomsday clockAre we getting closer to our catastrophic annihilation?

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (based, appropriately enough, at the University of Chicago) has kept track of our impending doom for over 60 years. They use a clock to represent our current time, where midnight is complete catastrophe. Back in the good old days, this meant something prosaic like global nuclear conflagration. Nowadays, there are plenty of other things to add to the list, including global climatic collapse, avian swine ebola, and grey goo. The current time is 11:55pm. Uncomfortably late.

There’s no real metric with which to judge the “time”. The clock has an hour and minute hand, but no am/pm indicator, so in principle it can represent a total of twelve hours of unique settings. [For the sticklers, the clock in some sense lacks a unit of time; we need some other information to interpret what one of its minutes represents.] If we assume noon is “zero risk of annihilation”, and midnight is 100%, one approach would be to assume each advancing minute brings us 1/720 closer to our doom. This would mean that we presently have just over a 99% chance of ending it all. If we were to run through the last fifty years 100 times in a row, would we survive only once? This doesn’t sound all that reasonable to me (even including the Cuban missile crisis, at which point the clock was at 11:53pm; it reacts to events on a relatively long timescale). Perhaps there’s an Anthropic selection effect at work? The closest we’ve ever come to midnight was in the period 1953–1960, when both the US and the USSR were busy testing Hydrogen bombs. It was 11:58 pm. You might think we’re easily ten minutes earlier now, but the clock presently stands at 11:55pm. We’ve made some progress, but not nearly enough. In all likelihood, the clock was meant to be symbolic. And the main message is that we are minutes away from catastrophe, so let’s all shape it up.

Tomorrow (1/14) at 10am EST the minute hand will move. You can watch it live. The big question is: which way will it go? On the one hand, the cold war seems reasonably contained, Obama has articulated a vision of a nuclear-free world (the first time a sitting US President has done so), and the world seems relatively peaceful at present. On the other hand, Pakistan and India are relatively unfriendly neighbors, North Korea is not a paragon of stability and good governance, and all three now have nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Iran seems hell bent on joining the nuclear club, and the Middle East is the usual quagmire. Perhaps even worse, global warming continues to be debated and questioned, while we continue to dump greenhouse gases into our atmosphere and change our planet.

Over the last two years, has our catastrophic demise approached or receded? We’ll find out what our friendly Atomic Scientists think in a few hours. But I’m curious to know what our readers think.

  • Nomoredespots

    Iran is the most likely candidate to start doomsday. Led by fanatical religious lunatics, bred on hatred of anything West, the current Iran regime will cause nuclear havoc on this Earth, all in the name of Islam.

    Unless these evil zealots are stopped very soon, there is not much hope for peace on Earth.

  • Brian Mingus

    The time will be 11:54.

  • viren naik

    The time should be 11.59 to be precise but no one is yet convinced of this.
    We are just on the brink.Just look at Haiati the fault lines surrounding thr North American continent are getting stronger by the day.
    regards and god bless
    viren naik

  • Bee

    It will stay at 11:55.

  • Per

    It is worse now than the final days of Bush.

    Its steadily declining but I don’t think there will be a doomsday. Rather it will turn into a total control society with a few very very powerful men on the top guiding everything.

    I get the impression that the author still think of Obama in terms of a saviour. How can that be? Isn’t it obvious its just a play for the masses? Just sum it up by thinking of his first night as president. In the middle of the night he signed the petition to close Guantanamo but has it happened?

    The same amount of troops are still in Iraq and even more are going to Afghanistan. What will be next? Jemen or Iran? Maybe both?

  • Sili

    the current Iran regime will cause nuclear havoc on this Earth, all in the name of Islam.

    Because it’s so damn easy to enrich Uranium and build nuclear bombs, yes.

    Iran may build a bomb and test it, and then what? Israel is gonna bomb them to smithereens and the US is just gonna ignore them doing that, while the EU will wag a finger and say “Baaaaaad! Don’t do that again.”

    Worldwide conflagrations don’t seem all that likely anymore. (At least not until Palin or the like gets elected.)

  • Olaf

    “This would mean that we presently have just under a 1% chance of ending it all.”

    Presumably you mean of not ending it all, right? We’re five minutes to midnight, not five past noon.

  • charlie

    I think it must have happened – the link has gone down – has the clock struck 12 prematurely (albeit digitally)?

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  • Sanda

    Well it depends how often the hand moves. The new position will be relative to the old in some sense. If the hand moves every year then it should either decrease or stay the same. The world has gotten a little more peaceful this year.

  • Neurath

    A quote from Robert McNamara to remind us of how close we came during the Cuban missile crisis:

    It wasn’t until January, 1992, in a meeting chaired by Castro in Havana, Cuba, that I learned 162 nuclear warheads, including 90 tactical warheads, were on the island at the time of this critical moment of the crisis. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and Castro got very angry with me because I said, “Mr. President, let’s stop this meeting. This is totally new to me, I’m not sure I got the translation right.”
    “Mr. President, I have three questions to you. Number one: did you know the nuclear warheads were there? Number two: if you did, would you have recommended to Khrushchev in the face of an U.S. attack that he use them? Number three: if he had used them, what would have happened to Cuba?”
    He said, “Number one, I knew they were there. Number two, I would not have recommended to Khrushchev, I did recommend to Khrushchev that they be used. Number three, ‘What would have happened to Cuba?’ It would have been totally destroyed.” That’s how close we were.
    Robert McNamara, the film documentary The Fog of War (2003)

  • inDistinctMicrostate

    The clock will be rolled back by one minute and a convenient new SNOOZE button will be installed

  • JC

    Aren’t humans amazing? They kill wildlife – birds, deer, all kinds of cats, coyotes, beavers, groundhogs, mice and foxes by the million in order to protect their domestic animals and their feed.

    Then they kill domestic animals by the billion and eat them. This in turn kills people by the million, because eating all those animals leads to degenerative – and fatal – – health conditions like heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and cancer.

    So then humans spend billions of dollars torturing and killing millions of more animals to look for cures for these diseases.

    Elsewhere, millions of other human beings are being killed by hunger and malnutrition because food they could eat is being used to fatten domestic animals.

    Meanwhile, few people recognize the absurdity of humans, who kill so easily and violently, and once a year send out cards praying for “Peace on Earth.”

    ~Revised Preface to Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm by C. David Coates~

    Check out this informative and inspiring video on why people choose vegan:

    Also see Gary Yourofsky:

  • Brian Mingus

    Do I win the prize?

    Go Obama!

  • Brian Too

    To me the Doomsday Clock was, and is, an artifact of the Cold War. It’s time to let it go already. This thing is maintained by the The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, hello!

    It was useful in it’s day as a way of focusing attention and debate upon nuclear tensions between the superpowers. Trying to leverage it up and throwing every other worry and challenge simply dilutes the message and loses focus, which was the whole point of the thing.

    My opinion is that promoters of more modern causes need to invent their own symbols and stop trying to co-opt the old ones.

  • Alex

    Presumably you mean of not ending it all, right? We’re five minutes to midnight, not five past noon.

    That’s what I thought too. In which case it’s best not to try to look at the time too logically, because as bad as things are, there’s not a roughly 99% chance of “Doomsday”.

  • Andrew

    The destructive power of individuals goes up and the cost to buy destructive power goes down.

    The ability to stop destructive power increases but at a much slower rate than destructive power; defending the world takes everyone but destroying it only requires a small number of people.

    I wonder if we’ll be considered an evolutionary success story since we did so much in so little time, or if we’ll be considered a failure since we lasted for a shorter time than almost all current life.

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  • daniel

    7. Olaf and 16. Alex are right. I switched noon and midnight. Post is fixed. Thanks for correcting me!

    2. Brian Mingus wins the prize, which consists of this sentence. :-)

    I think I agree with the Atomic Scientists in turning back the clock (ever so slightly). It’s hard to imagine that we’re worse off than we were two years ago. But this is more a general psychological statement than a cold assessment of the probability of disaster (since the environmental evidence is narrowing down on “catastrophe”).

  • PC

    You Americans, are amazing. I am a fan of this blog, but I cant’t believe nobody here thinks that maybe the United States of America are one of the main threats to peace in the world.
    Somebody says: “the current Iran regime will cause nuclear havoc on this Earth, all in the name of Islam.”
    Do you think of America as a peaceful country? Don’t you remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki? You guys are making wars all over the world. Vietnam… Irak… Afghanistan…
    Please, give me a break.

  • Ray Gedaly

    Cynic that I am, I would have liked the clock to be set at a minute past midnight. The symbolism of this would be to say that so long as we remain unconcerned and passive to the threats to the planet — environmental, biological, political, economic — then we’ve already doomed ourselves.

  • Joan

    The Bulletin is NOT based at the University of Chicago. It used to be, but not now.


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