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Does Test Move Clock Closer to Armageddon?

The board overseeing the nuclear symbol will discuss the global threat level next month.

October 15, 2006|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — It is one of the best-known symbols of the Atomic Age: a simple clock with only the last quadrant marked, whose hands are moved toward midnight (indicating nuclear Armageddon) or farther away (meaning global harmony).

The Doomsday Clock hangs inside a tiny room on the University of Chicago campus, a short walk from the laboratory that first harnessed the power of the atom.

Every time a new threat to international security occurs -- such as North Korea's announcement last week that it had carried out a successful underground nuclear test -- the clock's academic guardians are bombarded with a simple question.

Is it time to move the clock again?

"The phone has been ringing off the hook," said Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, an academic journal whose founders created and oversee the clock. "It's the public, the press and people who pay attention and are concerned about nuclear proliferation."

Since it first appeared on the Bulletin's cover in 1947, the clock has been moved forward or backward 17 times, as events have heightened or lessened the probability of a nuclear war.

Originally, the clock was set at 11:53 -- also the current time. Though initially that time was selected for aesthetic purposes, it took on a broader cultural significance during the Cold War -- that humanity was steadily marching toward its own destruction.

The clock emerged from the efforts of an international team of chemists and physicists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, a U.S. government effort that developed the first atomic bomb. After atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the group began meeting in Chicago -- an intellectual force behind the arms-control movement.

"The feeling then was they had let the genie out of the bottle, and they had to do something about it," said John Isaacs, president of Council for a Livable World, who has written for the Bulletin for 20-plus years.

Calling themselves the Chicago Atomic Scientists, the men began publishing a mimeographed newsletter in 1945.

Two years later, with a steadily growing readership in the academic and scientific communities, they expanded the newsletter into a magazine. Artist Martyl Langsdorf, whose husband had worked on the Manhattan Project, produced a clock for the first issue's cover artwork, to reflect urgency and warning.

The journal later commissioned the creation of an actual clock face -- minus the mechanics -- which hangs in the Bulletin's offices.

The last time the clock hands were moved was February 2002: The magazine's board of directors -- a team of political scientists, nuclear physicists and retired military officials -- decided that factors such as U.S. abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Sept. 11 attacks and the anthrax crisis were a wake-up call.

There is no formula to gauge when or how much the hands move, said Benedict. The decision is made by a consensus of the board of directors.

The journal's separate board of sponsors, which offers technical expertise, also weighs in. Today, 15 of the Bulletin's 41 sponsors are Nobel laureates.

(Over the years, the publication has attracted major names from the scientific, academic and political worlds. Former Vice President Al Gore wrote a piece on arms control in 1993. Albert Einstein founded its board of sponsors and helped spearhead fundraising efforts. And J. Robert Oppenheimer was the board of sponsors' first chairman.)

The boards typically wait weeks, or even months, before changing the clock to see what global ripple effects are caused by an act.

"Now, there are reports that air samplings in North Korea have shown no evidence of radioactive particles," Benedict said. "But there is a revolution happening in atomic sciences, with an explosion of new agents that can be formed and manipulated on the molecular level.

"So which one is the true threat? Do they both pose the same threat to the survivability of humanity and the planet? These are the kinds of questions that we need to ask and answer before anyone touches the clock," she said.

In 1953, after both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union successfully tested hydrogen bombs, the clock was moved to its most alarming time: two minutes until midnight.

The most hopeful sign came in 1991. As the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and political leaders announced further unilateral cuts in nuclear arsenals, the clock hand was moved back to 17 minutes until midnight.

Some academic skeptics dismiss the clock as anachronistic and see the journal's dwindling circulation -- down to 10,000 subscribers, from a peak of 35,000 in the early to mid-1980s -- as proof of the icon's fading relevance, with the end of the Cold War and the downsizing of superpower nuclear arsenals.

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