The Organization Behind the Doomsday Clock

For more than 70 years, the iconic-but-dark Doomsday Clock has been the work of a nonprofit magazine with ties to the original Manhattan Project. Here’s how the clock came to light, and what it represents today.

You’ve probably heard of the Doomsday Clock—one of the great icons of the nuclear era, it has become a pulse check of how close the world is to global armageddon. (And it does so with a dead-simple design.)

This week, the clock was dialed back about half a minute, and is now two minutes to midnight, the closest it’s been since 1953—ensuring that it would dominate a chunk of the conversation this week.

But less is said about the organization that came up with this concept, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The bulletin is an academic publication that was launched by a number of University of Chicago-based Manhattan Project scientists, who were concerned about the impact of their work, which had created the atomic bomb. Since 1947, every issue of the publication has included the clock in ways big and small.

While the Manhattan Project scientists have passed on, the bulletin has maintained its role as a popular source of public policy. Calling itself a “independent, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization,” it brings together a board of some of the foremost experts on issues of security and science to discuss the impacts of nuclear weapons and other global threats.

The organization’s work, which has long attracted the interest of major scientists and public figures, has largely been funded through a mixture of grants and magazine subscriptions. At times, its success has, somewhat ironically, imperiled the magazine’s funding picture. A 1964 New York Times article, published a year after the Doomsday Clock fell all the way back to 12 minutes before midnight, suggested that the publication was in danger of going under. The headline? “Atom Magazine Too Successful.”

The magazine’s failure didn’t come to pass, but neither did world peace, which means that the clock remains relevant into the present day. These days, the publication is supported by a number of partnerships, including with the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and with the publisher Routledge. The magazine gets 230,000 online readers monthly.

In regard to the current position of the Doomsday Clock, Bulletin President and CEO Rachel Bronson wrote in a statement that a major reason for the recent tightening of the clock is the growth of nuclear actors “on the cusp of a new arms race, one that will be very expensive and will increase the likelihood of accidents and misperceptions.”

She added that the goal of the clock, as always, is to help create an opportunity for global actors to reverse course on decisions that could imperil the globe.

“It is my hope that the statement focuses world attention on today’s dangerous trajectory and urges leaders and citizens alike to redouble their efforts in committing to a path that advances the health and safety of the planet,” she wrote. “The Board has provided recommendations for how we might go about achieving this end, and it is urgent that we take heed.”

(cesaria1/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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