(Brendan Smialowski / Getty Contributor)
On August 6, 1945, the US dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, wiping out the city and killing over 80,000 people. Many more died of radiation exposure soon after. Three days later, a second bomb destroyed Nagasaki. World War II ended with the Japanese surrender less than a month later.
Scientists from the highly secretive Manhattan Project, who built these nuclear weapons, knew they had to avoid a full-scale arms race, so barely three months after the bombs dropped, they released a six-page black-and-white leaflet called the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The goal was to involve the public in discourse around these life-threatening technologies and the circumstances that might lead to further deployment.
Two years later, when the Bulletin became a full-color magazine, graphic artist Martyl Langsdorf was commissioned to design the cover. She wanted to convey “a sense of urgency,” and came up with the Doomsday Clock concept.
Manhattan Project site in Oak Ridge, Tenn., 1943 (Photo by Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)
The Bulletin still exists today, and is now a rich digital resource. Since 1945, it’s been “set” by an esteemed council including scientists, economists, political advisers, and military strategists. In 2019, it was set to Two Minutes to Midnight (midnight being the end of civilization); 2020’s time will be determined at the organization’s annual meeting next month and announced in January.
Ahead of that gathering, we spoke with Dr. Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a Middle East expert and author. Below are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.
PCMag: According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2019, the Doomsday Clock was set at ‘two minutes to midnight.’ How did you come to this conclusion?
Dr. Rachel Bronson: Our esteemed Science and Security Board had deep discussions about the threat level, and drew on expertise from many sources, including our Board of Sponsors, which contains 14 Nobel Laureates. Many negative developments had taken place, which made it appear that the world was headed into an unregulated nuclear environment.
These included the United States abandoning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [which imposed unprecedented constraints on Iran’s nuclear program] and being poised to withdraw from the INF Treaty [which bans missiles of intermediate range]. Relations between the US, Russia, and China have grown more fraught. Russia, India, and Pakistan are all continuing to expand and modernize their nuclear programs, and the North Korean nuclear issue remains unresolved.
(Dr. Rachel Bronson)
Essentially we’re in a new arms race. But there are also new threats, as you laid out in your recent statement on information warfare. Can you expand on that?
Much has changed since the Bulletin was first published in 1945. In 2009, we added climate change into the existential risks we focus on every day and use to set the Doomsday Clock. Today we are particularly concerned about the incorporation of AI into autonomous weaponry that makes “kill” decisions without human supervision. We’re also keeping abreast of world security threats, including biological hazards, such as bio-terrorism attacks, the emergence of rapidly spreading and fatal diseases, and synthetic biology programs.
The 2019 setting was the closest to midnight since the Soviets and Americans tested their hydrogen bombs in the 1950s. On a more positive note, when was the Doomsday Clock set at its furthest from midnight, and why?
In 1991, we set the clock back: “17 Minutes to Midnight.” The Cold War was over. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty greatly scaled back the number of strategic nuclear weapons deployed by both sides, and a series of unilateral initiatives were underway to remove most of the intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers in both countries from hair-trigger alert.
(Greenpeace protesters put the Doomsday Clock at the gate of Hong Kong government headquarters, 2007)
How have we not blown ourselves up before now?
Because—so far—national leaders have heeded warnings, set up communication channels with adversaries, negotiated treaties to control the weapons, taken steps to radically reduce arsenals, and engaged erstwhile enemies in cooperative projects. We’ve also gotten lucky. Preventing nuclear war requires continued diplomacy, more exchanges of information, and open communications that engender trust.
Let’s talk about your own background: you joined the Bulletin in 2015, after executive roles at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Council on Foreign Relations. What made you decide this would be your next challenge?
I’d been familiar with the Bulletin throughout my career, since graduate school, and right through my roles in Washington. I was particularly drawn to this job because it addressed today’s biggest challenges—the geopolitics of energy, the fast-paced advancement of science and technology, climate change, and the place of the US in the world. I wanted to provide leadership to make the Bulletin stronger, more visible, and have an even greater policy impact in advocating for arms control, debating what kind of energy future we need, and how to make nuclear power safer. I was already in Chicago and expected to move back to Washington, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up.
(Dr. Rachel Bronson)
Your doctorate from Columbia University is in political science. How did you first become interested in global affairs, and why?
My first wake-up call was as a child hearing Israeli jets break the sound barrier during the invasion of Lebanon. My father, a math professor, had taken a six-month posting to the Technion [Institute of Technology] in Israel, and I got the first-hand experience of living amongst people on all sides of fierce political divides while a military conflict raged around us. I wanted to understand how the situation had occurred. That’s how it all started for me. I went on to study US history and decided to focus on Middle East politics during senior year just prior to Desert Storm, continuing on into graduate and postgraduate study.
After your PhD at Columbia, you worked for a DC-based think tank and consulted for the military during a time when US strategists were creating a new way of examining global politics.
Yes, the 90s was an exciting time. A lot of political science theories on war and peace had, until then, been viewed through the European model, with European use cases. It all changed around that time. I went to DC, did advisory work on the military presence in the Middle East, as well as consulting for the US Navy, before joining the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. One of my academic papers during this period addressed the problem with our presence in the Persian Gulf. We had strong military-to-military relations, but we knew we hadn’t built similarly strong civil-military relations. You need institutions to support military engagement in order to have a feasible post-conflict plan. We didn’t have very good ones.
Is there a physical Doomsday Clock? Can the public visit it?
Yes and no. It’s largely symbolic. We do create one each year for the announcement of the “reset” time, when someone significant is invited to move the hands. We’ve also created one which is on display at the Public School of Policy here at the University of Chicago.
A confession: I first heard about the Doomsday Clock via the recent BBC Cold War drama series Summer of Rockets. I had no idea it was a real thing until I looked you up.
But that’s great! Hollywood and television are central to our mission of connecting experts to the broader public interested in these topics. We’re extremely proud of our connection to popular culture. We often get called on to advise on scripts and we’re happy the message is getting out there.
Finally, while many people feel utterly powerless in the face of world events, the Bulletin exists to say there are ways to get involved, right?
Yes! #RewindTheDoomsdayClock is our campaign to encourage citizens in every country to use the power of the internet to fight against social media disinformation and move the Doomsday Clock away from catastrophe by insisting on facts. They can demand action to reduce the existential threat of nuclear war and unchecked climate change by telling their government representatives that they don’t want their taxes spent on nuclear weapons, and asking what they are doing to mitigate climate change. Write, email, and organize. Let governments know that our security depends on getting rid of nuclear weapons and on finding ways to keep our planet habitable for humanity.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists holds its annual event on Nov. 7 with keynote speaker Eric Horvitz, director of Microsoft Research Labs.