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The Sciences

How many minutes until Doomsday?



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Are we getting closer to our catastrophic annihilation? The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (based, appropriately enough, at the University of Chicago) has kept track of our impending doom for over 60 years. They use a clock to represent our current time, where midnight is complete catastrophe. Back in the good old days, this meant something prosaic like global nuclear conflagration. Nowadays, there are plenty of other things to add to the list, including global climatic collapse, avian swine ebola, and grey goo. The current time is 11:55pm. Uncomfortably late. There's no real metric with which to judge the "time". The clock has an hour and minute hand, but no am/pm indicator, so in principle it can represent a total of twelve hours of unique settings. [For the sticklers, the clock in some sense lacks a unit of time; we need some other information to interpret what one of its minutes represents.] If we assume noon is "zero risk of annihilation", and midnight is 100%, one approach would be to assume each advancing minute brings us 1/720 closer to our doom. This would mean that we presently have just over a 99% chance of ending it all. If we were to run through the last fifty years 100 times in a row, would we survive only once? This doesn't sound all that reasonable to me (even including the Cuban missile crisis, at which point the clock was at 11:53pm; it reacts to events on a relatively long timescale). Perhaps there's an Anthropic selection effect at work? The closest we've ever come to midnight was in the period 1953–1960, when both the US and the USSR were busy testing Hydrogen bombs. It was 11:58 pm. You might think we're easily ten minutes earlier now, but the clock presently stands at 11:55pm. We've made some progress, but not nearly enough. In all likelihood, the clock was meant to be symbolic. And the main message is that we are minutes away from catastrophe, so let's all shape it up. Tomorrow (1/14) at 10am EST the minute hand will move. You can watch it live. The big question is: which way will it go? On the one hand, the cold war seems reasonably contained, Obama has articulated a vision of a nuclear-free world (the first time a sitting US President has done so), and the world seems relatively peaceful at present. On the other hand, Pakistan and India are relatively unfriendly neighbors, North Korea is not a paragon of stability and good governance, and all three now have nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Iran seems hell bent on joining the nuclear club, and the Middle East is the usual quagmire. Perhaps even worse, global warming continues to be debated and questioned, while we continue to dump greenhouse gases into our atmosphere and change our planet. Over the last two years, has our catastrophic demise approached or receded? We'll find out what our friendly Atomic Scientists think in a few hours. But I'm curious to know what our readers think.

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