For Whom the Bell Tolls


For avid followers of the entertaining timepiece known as the world's Doomsday Clock, this past week's movement of its big hand from five minutes before midnight to six minutes before midnight is major news.

Members of the board of the Atomic Bulletin of Atomic Sciences called a news conference to let the world know that shifting attitudes on nuclear weapons and climate change have them feeling a tiny bit more optimistic about our chances for survival, and they've given us one additional minute to play with as we work together to save our threatened planet.

I've been a follower of the famous Doomsday Clock since I was a young boy. My interest began when a neighbor kid, Billy Dornbach, made fun of the Timex watch my uncle had given me for my birthday, saying, "It's not as cool as the Doomsday Clock." I hadn't heard of the Doomsday Clock, and Billy went on to explain how, in 1947, scientists at the University of Chicago had created the Doomsday Clock as a warning to humanity that it was facing catastrophic destruction from nuclear weapons. On the day the clock was introduced, the hands were set at seven minutes to midnight, a sign that we best get busy saving our asses.

Billy showed me how the scientists had moved the big hand back and forth over the years depending on hostile or peaceful circumstances on the planet. He loved pointing out the clock's 1953 position when we were just two minutes from Doomsday because of U.S. and Soviet testing of thermonuclear devices.

"Two minutes, man—that's as close as we ever got," he said. "My folks were stocking the fallout shelter all summer that year."

I became fascinated with the notion of a single day when it could all go to hell—not a year, not a season, a day.

I realized we'd never actually get to see the clock hit midnight because, on the day it would need to be moved there, we'd all be dead. Thus, one minute to midnight became the real "place your head between your legs" signal. At two minutes to midnight, people must have at least been limbering up.

Back when I was hanging out with Billy, the clock sat at 11:51. It stalled there for a good eight years. While less stressful than two minutes to Armageddon, it was still unsettling. In fact, I always felt it was a shame the clock couldn't have been introduced in the 19th century, when the hands might have shown a comfortable 8:30 in the morning. To not have any clock at all for so long and then see it suddenly appear out of nowhere damn near at the bewitching hour seemed unnecessarily cruel. One day we have all the time in the world, the next we're barely able to finish our beers. In fact, at seven minutes to midnight why call it a clock at all? It's little more than a stopwatch.

The best we've ever done since 1947 is get the clock back to 11:43. That was in 1991 when the U.S. signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Soviets. Consequently, it's probably hopeless to ever imagine escaping the Jimmy Kimmel hour entirely and seeing the hands back with the 10 o'clock news. We seem forever trapped in the last 30 minutes of our day. That may be why so much TV comedy is inserted there. What else would there be to do in our final minutes but have a fine chuckle? With any luck it'd be over some biting satire about the absurdity of purposely destroying our only home.

It would have been nice if years ago someone had thought up a jubilee clock, ticking off the minutes to a midnight of sublime ecstasy. But few ever seemed to feel that optimistic. And that's a shame, because I think it's all a toss-up, frankly. The exaltation clock has just as much business in our collective town square as that gloomy timepiece called Doom.

The game's afoot. The day ain't over yet.