Friday, March 15, 2024



Kate and I watched the movie The Courier (on Netflix), an excellent film based on fact.

It tells of a British businessman, Greville Wynne, recruited by the Secret Intelligence Service to be a message conduit with Russian spy source Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet colonel, in the 1960s. It was a time when the US and Russia came to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 over the presence of Soviet nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba aimed at the US. One of the US responses was to build nuclear fallout shelters in case of nuclear war. One of the events that is seen as the turning point of this crisis that avoided a nuclear war is the secret documents, over 5000, that Oleg Penkovsky gave to Greville Wynne.

The Russia-Ukraine war, with Putin’s threats of a nuclear response, has created another worrisome situation.

This has been illustrated by the current Doomsday Clock setting.

The Doomsday Clock is a symbol that represents the likelihood of a human-made global catastrophe, in the opinion of the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Maintained since 1947, the clock is a metaphor, not a prediction, for threats to humanity from unchecked scientific and technological advances. That is, the time on the clock is not to be interpreted as actual time. A hypothetical global catastrophe is represented by midnight on the clock, with the Bulletin's opinion on how close the world is to one represented by a certain number of minutes or seconds to midnight, which is then assessed in January of each year.

The main factors influencing the clock are nuclear warfare, climate change, and artificial intelligence. The Bulletin's Science and Security Board monitors new developments in the life sciences and technology that could inflict irrevocable harm to humanity.

The clock's original setting in 1947 was 7 minutes to midnight. It has since been set backward 8 times and forward 17 times. The farthest time from midnight was 17 minutes in 1991, and the nearest is 90 seconds, set on January 2023. It remained unchanged in January 2024.

The Doomsday Clock's origin can be traced to the international group of researchers called the Chicago Atomic Scientists, who had participated in the Manhattan Project. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they began publishing a mimeographed newsletter and then the magazine, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which, since its inception, has depicted the Clock on every cover.

Cover of the 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists issue, featuring the Doomsday Clock at "seven minutes to midnight"

Like a countdown, the Clock suggests that destruction will naturally occur unless someone takes action to stop it.

“Midnight" has a deeper meaning besides the constant threat of war. There are various elements taken into consideration when the scientists from The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists decide what Midnight and "global catastrophe" really mean in a particular year. They might include "politics, energy, weapons, diplomacy, and climate science";[ potential sources of threat include nuclear threats, climate change, bioterrorism, and artificial intelligence. Members of the board judge Midnight by discussing how close they think humanity is to the end of civilization. In 1947, at the beginning of the Cold War, the Clock was started at seven minutes to midnight.

Before January 2020, the two tied-for-lowest points for the Doomsday Clock were in 1953 (when the Clock was set to two minutes until midnight, after the U.S. and the Soviet Union began testing hydrogen bombs) and in 2018, following the failure of world leaders to address tensions relating to nuclear weapons and climate change issues.

On January 24, 2018, scientists moved the clock to two minutes to midnight, based on threats greatest in the nuclear realm. The scientists said, of recent moves by North Korea under Kim Jong-un and the administration of Donald Trump in the U.S.: "Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions by both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation".

The clock was left unchanged in 2019 due to the twin threats of nuclear weapons and climate change, and the problem of those threats being "exacerbated this past year by the increased use of information warfare to undermine democracy around the world, amplifying risk from these and other threats and putting the future of civilization in extraordinary danger".

On January 23, 2020, the Clock was moved to 100 seconds (1 minute, 40 seconds) before midnight. The Bulletin's executive chairman, Jerry Brown, said "the dangerous rivalry and hostility among the superpowers increases the likelihood of nuclear blunder... Climate change just compounds the crisis". The "100 seconds to midnight" setting remained unchanged in 2021 and 2022.

On January 24, 2023, the Clock was moved to 90 seconds (1 minute, 30 seconds) before midnight, the closest it has ever been set to midnight since its inception in 1947. This adjustment was largely attributed to the risk of nuclear escalation that arose from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Other reasons cited included climate change, biological threats such as COVID-19, and risks associated with disinformation and disruptive technologies.

Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute has stated that the "grab bag of threats" currently mixed together by the Clock can induce paralysis. People may be more likely to succeed at smaller, incremental challenges; for example, taking steps to prevent the accidental detonation of nuclear weapons was a small but significant step towards avoiding nuclear war.

Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker harshly criticized the Doomsday Clock as a political stunt, pointing to the words of its founder that its purpose was "to preserve civilization by scaring men into rationality". He stated that it is inconsistent and not based on any objective indicators of security, using as an example its being farther from midnight in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis than in the "far calmer 2007". He argued it was another example of humanity's tendency toward historical pessimism, and compared it to other predictions of self-destruction that went unfulfilled.

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