The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the "Doomsday Clock," on which midnight heralds the onset of nuclear war, on Wednesday morning from nine minutes to seven minutes until midnight. This resetting to the position at which it debuted in 1947 marks the 17th time that the clock has been reset in its 55-year history.
A group of University scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project formed the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1945 on campus. They periodically re-evaluate how close the world is to "midnight," or nuclear war, and adjust the Doomsday Clock accordingly. The markings on the clock show only the last 15 minutes before midnight.
"Our mission then and now is to educate citizens about global security issues, especially dangers caused by nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction," said Stephen Schwartz, the publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science's magazine. The Bulletin's current board includes specialists in international relations, physicists, nuclear industry experts, and international representatives.
Wednesday's shift marks the third time since the end of the Cold War in 1991 that the clock's minute hand has moved closer to midnight. It was last moved in June of 1998 from 14 minutes to nine minutes until midnight because of heightened tensions due to the conflict between India and Pakistan.
"I think it [the clock] was designed as a static symbol," Schwartz said. "It wasn't until 1949 when Russia tested its first nuclear missile that they thought they should move it."
Leon Lederman, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in physics and the president of the board of sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, moved the clock's hand at a press conference at Max Palevsky Cinema.
"We move the hand taking into account both negative and positive developments," said George Lopez, the chairman of the board of directors of the Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science. He cited several negative developments, such as too little progress on global nuclear disarmament and growing concern about the security of nuclear weapons materials worldwide. Lopez also said that U.S. policy, namely the abandonment of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty, the U.S. preference for unilateral action instead of cooperative international diplomacy, and American efforts to thwart enactment of international agreements against proliferation of nuclear weapons, had negative consequences on the clock hand's position.
Lopez also noted some positive developments that have occurred since 1998. The increased resolve for disarmament by the 187 governments that agreed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was one of several factors that prevented the clock's hand from moving even closer to midnight. France's dismantling of its Pacific nuclear test site and the Bush administration's intention to increase funding to ensure that nuclear weapons and intelligence do not leave Russia were also cited as positive factors.
The clock's current position is not the closest it has been to midnight; it was set at two minutes until midnight in 1953. The furthest it has been was in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union at 17 minutes to midnight. "That was reflective of the general mood of the time," Lopez said.
The effects of the clock's position are uncertain. The organization uses it as an educational tool to make the public aware of the threat of nuclear war. One University of Michigan economist, Joel Slemrod, claims that there is a correlation between the amount of money people save and the position of the clock. According to his findings, the closer the clock's hand is to midnight, the less people save.
Although the events of September 11 affected the movement of the clock's hand, Schwartz denied that it was the sole reason for the two-minute move. He said that the clock is never moved in response to a single event, and he noted that it was not moved after the first World Trade Center bombings in 1993 or after the Oklahoma City bombing.
"I wish I could tell you it was 47 seconds' worth, but we don't work with such precision," Lopez said.
Lopez urged both Russia and the United States to decrease their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Although eight nations possess nuclear arms, the United States and Russia together own 95 percent of the world's stock of 31,000. The Board is calling for both countries to reduce the number of nuclear arms to no more than 1,000 each by the end of the decade and to make the reductions irreversible.
The Board is also urging the United States and Russia to dismantle the nuclear arms that they have on high alert, ready to be fired within minutes.
"This practice, born of fear and uncertainty during the Cold War, is a dangerous anachronism," Lopez said.
Lopez also suggested that all nations in possession of nuclear arms submit their holdings to international scrutiny and that they enter into negotiations to dismantle their weapons. He said that these kinds of actions would lead the Bulletin to move the clock's hand away from midnight.
"I think the situation is much more optimistic now. A total nuclear war is now much less likely," Lederman said.
"I hope the continued education and understanding will help us to pick the right edges of technology."