Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists updated on January 20 the Doomsday Clock: 2022's Doomsday Clock stuck at 100 seconds until the end of the world.

After two year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and continued fears over nuclear risks and climate change, the symbolic Doomsday Clock remains stuck at the same time as in 2020.

The clock was first created by US scientists working on the atomic bomb-building Manhattan Project during World War II to warn humanity of the dangers of nuclear war. Its current board members include 13 Nobel laureates.


100 seconds from midnight is the metaphorical time when the human race could destroy the world with technologies of its own making.

The clock was originally devised as a way to draw attention to nuclear conflagration. The scientists realised that more bombs did not increase the chances of winning a war or make anyone safe when just one bomb would be enough to destroy New York.

While nuclear annihilation remains the most probable and acute existential threat to humanity, there are further  potential catastrophes the Doomsday Clock measures. The Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world's vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and disruptive technologies in other domains.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists  has in fact  increasingly turned its attention to the rise of Artificial Intelligence, autonomous weaponry,  mechanical and biological robotics.

Part of the problem lies in the role of science itself. While it helps us understand the risks of technological progress, it also drives that process in the first place. And scientists are part of the same cultural and political processes that influence everyone.

J. Robert Oppenheimer,  the father of the atomic bomb, described this vulnerability of scientists to manipulation, and to their own naivete, ambition and greed, in 1947: "In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose."

Doomsday Clock

The annual resetting of the Doomsday Clock is a major media event, providing grist for politicians, policy-makers and commentators around the world. The clock provides many with a sense of sanity. It’s empowering, if it helps people feel that they’re not crazy by noting that something is not right and that we’re not where we should be in 2022. The clock is a blunt instrument but can  generate conversations at the highest levels of power and in the most local classrooms.

The clock's original setting in 1947 was 7 minutes to midnight. It has been set backward and forward 24 times since, the farthest from midnight being 17 minutes in 1991 (demise of the Soviet Union) , and the nearest being 100 seconds, from 2020 to the present.

In 2019 there were almost 13,900 nuclear warheads in the world (albeit down from a high of more than 70,000 in the mid-1980s). And it was the continued existence of these arsenals  that shaped the Bulletin’s current risk assessment.

The Bulletin’s formal process begins in November each year, when members of the science and security board meet in Chicago with its deliberations centred on two fundamental questions. First, is humanity safer or at greater risk this year compared to the year before? And second, is humanity safer or at greater risk this year than in all the years since the Bulletin began its deliberations in 1947?

The annual clock-setting is intended to serve as a challenge to politicians to do better in the year ahead. However, members of the board are currently concerned that the world lacks the strong leadership and co-operation to deal with the risks they have flagged.

Current situation

Members of the Bulletin are also increasingly concerned by the rise of fake news and conspiracy theories, which have led to the anti-vaccination movement and other scare stories. Social media has allowed such disinformation to spread, making it much harder to address real risks.

Although the Bulletin does look at nuclear risk, its current focus is on transformative Artificial Intelligence (AI), which could compound existing risks. If used in weapons, for example, AI could rapidly and inadvertently escalate minor incidents into nuclear wars without humans being able to stop them.

And that is exactly the kind of problem physicists are well placed to examine. Within the physics and cosmology community there is a tendency to think on bigger scales and longer timescales which gives them an ability to understand how small risks can still become significant over time.

The physicists on the Manhattan Project,  even before they had built a bomb, worried that a nuclear explosion could create such extreme temperatures that hydrogen atoms in the air and water would fuse to form helium. Literally igniting the atmosphere and oceans, this process would generate a runaway reaction that could engulf the globe. Fortunately, when this possibility was studied, it proved unfounded.


Nuclear power right now is so desperately needed in terms of energy in this carbon constrained environment that we're in. We desperately need nuclear power because it doesn't emit carbon. But at the same time, we've been unable to fully manage its risks. The public doesn't trust it. We're worried about terrorism, we're worried about accidents, we're worried about meltdowns.

Well, if we could manage those risks, we'd have this really unhindered energy source. But we are worried about those risks. And so we're not using nuclear power to its fullest advantage, which is exactly the kinds of issues that we are really interested in, because good policy should be able to help us get there.

As for climate, COP26 in Glasgow offered positive rhetoric but relatively little action. Encouragingly, several countries announced net-zero carbon dioxide targets by 2050, but getting there would require immediate divestment from fossil fuels, investment in renewables, upgrading infrastructure and shifting land use and agriculture practices.

US, Russia and China

US relations with Russia and China remain tense, with all three countries engaged in an array of nuclear modernization and expansion efforts, including the push to develop hypersonic missiles.

If not restrained, these efforts could mark the start of a dangerous new nuclear arms race while North Korea's nuclear and missile ambitions and potential unsuccessful attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal contribute to growing dangers.

Ukraine also remains a possible flashpoint, and Russia's massive troop deployments to the Ukrainian border heighten day-to-day tensions.

The Bulletin called on Washington and Moscow to expand the scope of nuclear reduction, and for the world's leading polluters to accelerate decarbonization.

China should set an example by pursuing sustainable development pathways - not fossil fuel-intensive projects -  in its global infrastructure project Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also known as The new Land and Sea Silk Roads..

This is why the Russian and US presidents should identify more ambitious and comprehensive limits on nuclear weapons and delivery systems by the end of 2022. They should both agree to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons by limiting their roles, missions, and platforms, and decrease budgets accordingly.

The US should persuade allies and rivals that no-first-use of nuclear weapons is a step toward security and stability and then declare such a policy in concert with Russia and China.

Russia should rejoin the NATO-Russia Council and collaborate on risk-reduction and escalation-avoidance measures.

If humanity is to avoid an existential catastrophe, one that would dwarf anything it has yet seen, US, Russia and China must do a far better job of countering disinformation, heeding science and cooperating.

Without swift and focused action, truly catastrophic  events that could end civilization as we know it are more likely. When the Clock stands at 100 seconds to midnight, we are all threatened. The moment is both perilous and unsustainable, and the time to act is now.


Ethics and responsibility must be embedded within scientific education. Physics is not a pure, abstract exercise but has consequences that cannot just be ignored. And while  scientists who speak out should be more protected, professional institutions should debate the risks of new and existing technologies more openly with their members and with the public.

Better incentives and rewards are needed for individuals who help the world to avoid catastrophes, as did Soviet air-defence officer Stanislav Petrov, who in 1983 was on duty in a command centre near Moscow when a radar screen on a satellite early-warning system seemed to suggest the US had launched five nuclear missiles. Petrov refused to alert the authorities, suspecting - correctly as it turned out - a malfunction.

We are fast moving into a period where all the rules certainly on nuclear issues, but in climate as well, and broader disruptive tech are either falling away or in the case of disruptive tech not really even yet created. A global architecture in terms of cooperation between countries is badly needed  at a moment where the issues are compounding each other.

Since its inception  the Doomsday Clock has measured our time until apocalypse.  Even though the Clock is a metaphor,  the meaning behind it is a matter of life and death.