It’s three minutes to midnight. That’s what it says on the clock graphic of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists web site. That iconic image known as the Doomsday Clock is meant to be an indicator of the current level of some of the existential threats facing humanity. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 by scientists involved in the Manhattan project who had ethical concerns over the work they were doing. Back then they were meeting to discuss the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. Today the organization has expanded to include nuclear disarmament, climate change, and emerging technologies. What emerging technologies? How about the dangers of artificial intelligence with a will of its own or rogue swarms of nanobots? They’re one of the groups that’s trying to keep us from cleverly expediting our own extinction.
In 1947, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published its first magazine. The designer of the cover, Martyl Langsdorf, chose the metaphor of a clock counting down to midnight to represent the current state of serious threat facing humanity from our own activities. The minute hand could be moved as needed to quickly communicate times of peace or encroaching peril. The infographic is simple, evocative, and effective. It’s a classic. Plus, they chose to call it the Doomsday Clock which is a lot catchier than something like the Existential Threat to Humanity Clock.
The Doomsday Clock was such a great science communication tool that The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists started making a great public show of moving the minute hand of the clock over the years. As of today, the minute hand has been moved 21 times since its initial position at seven minutes to midnight.
The design of the Doomsday Clock is truly iconic. Like other classic works of art it’s been appropriated and parodied countless times by other artists as well as revisited by Martyl herself. I had the chance to exhibit one of Martyl Langsdorf’s versions of the Doomsday Clock, Have A Nice Day, 2002, when I organized a huge group art show, Just Say No!: Chicago Artists Against the War, at the Chicago Athenaeum in Schaumburg in 2003. We started putting the event together as soon it looked like the US was ramping up to invade Iraq. Martyl and her collaborators at (art)^n were very kind to loan us the piece for the protest.
The concept has found its way into popular culture in pop music, tons of clip art and web graphics, comic strips and more.
The Doomsday Clock was the centerpiece of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ influential graphic novel, Watchmen. The entire piece was structured around the motif of a doomsday clock clicking down to a bloody midnight.
This powerful metaphor has its critics. Arguments against using it cite psychological stress from the constant threat of impending doom. Others claim it is counter productive because the pessimism causes people to give up trying to make a difference. However, I think dramatic imagery and theater is necessary to communicate the vital message of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists for public awareness. It’s not a scare tactic if the threat is real. And it is. To bury the urgency by relying on unemotional language or scientific jargon would do the public a great disservice and bore us into apathy.
The artist in me loves the visceral punch of the Doomsday Clock. However, it’s time for some new metaphors for a post-nuclear threat age. A time bomb ticking down to detonation is a great motif for a time when we are under threat from nuclear war. Nuclear war is fast and final. Our most pressing problem at the moment–climate change–has a more gradual momentum with a subtle web of tipping points that will take decades to escalate. Yet somehow the urgent need for action in the face of these more subtle threats still needs to be continuously communicated to the world. We need some more easily understood, cautionary, and instructive icons that convince us to leave a world that continues to nurture ourselves and all of life on Earth.