What is the Doomsday clock?

A real symbolic warning system makes a significant appearance in this week’s Doctor Who

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Tonight’s episode of Doctor Who includes extensive references to the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic prediction of the likelihood of a man-made global disaster as represented by a clock counting the minutes down to midnight. 

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And if you were wondering, yes, the Doomsday Clock is real. Well, not physically real – there’s not a giant clock ticking away somewhere – but it is a real project carried out by scientists, which you can see here. Maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists‘ Science and Security Board since 1947, the symbolic Clock was originally used to hypothesise the likelihood of all-out nuclear war, but since 2007 has also factored in other threats like climate change. 

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A pre-2017 summary of the Doomsday Clock’s history

The way the Clock (which also played a key role in critically-acclaimed graphic novel Watchmen) works is simple: the closer the minute hand is to midnight, the closer the Bulletin scientists believe the world is to an irrevocable catastrophe, with the team adjusting and announcing the clock’s time every year depending on various factors.

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The furthest from midnight the clock has ever been set was 17 minutes to midnight in 1991, while the closest it’s ever gotten was in 1953, when hydrogen bomb testing by the US and Russia saw it pushed all the way up to two minutes to midnight.

Cheerfully, the current threat rating is actually set at only two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, the second-closest in history, which is according to the Bulletin is due to the “rise of ‘strident nationalism’ worldwide, United States President Donald Trump’s comments over North Korea, Russia, nuclear weapons, and the disbelief in the scientific consensus over climate change by the Trump Administration.” 

In other words, our situation in the real world is currently considered more dire than the threat of alien invasion and complete worldwide disaster that kicked off this week’s episode of Doctor Who, where the Doomsday Clock started off at three minutes (symbolised by everyone’s watches and phones being set to 11:57pm) before continuing to count down as the episode continued.

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Members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists unveil the 2017 time for the Doomsday Clock on 26th January 2017 in Washington, DC

Obviously, this is a lovely and totally non-depressing thought to go to bed with on this warm Saturday evening, but in fairness to the production team, the Clock was still set at three minutes to midnight when they shot the episode in December, before it was reset in January. And who could have predicted real life would be even weirder and deadlier than a Doctor Who episode? 

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Doctor Who continues on BBC1 on Saturday 3rd June at 7:35pm