Opinion: Time for Doomsday Clock to Stop Ticking
May 19, 2011 --
Time to break out the champagne and party hats because it's that time of year once again: doomsday. Now Judgment Day doesn't always come once a year. In fact, it's often much more frequent than that. But that doesn't mean that all apocalypses are created equal. While waiting for the end of the world, why not take a look at some of the most famous doomsday predictions in history? We'll begin with the most imminent doomsday prediction: May 21. Pastor Harold Camping, president of Family Radio, is convinced that, after decoding passages in the Bible, the Rapture will take place on May 21, 2011, an event ushered in by an unprecedented global earthquake. The world will cease to exist five months later on October 21, 2011. Camping has a small, but dedicated following that feels it is their duty to warn nonbelievers of the impending apocalypse. So they travel around the country with signs, hats, painted buses and reading materials all advertising impending doom. When asked if he had considered what he might do when May 22 rolls around, Camping told NPR: "There is no Plan B." Despite his faith in his convictions, Camping has been wrong before. He first predicted the end of the world in 1994, which he insists was a premature assessment since he had not completed his Bible research.
The Large Hadron Collider is on the cutting edge of physics, and it may help unlock the mysteries of our universe. It has already set records for particle collisions. It has not, however, yet caused the end of the world, as many feared the LHC would when it fired up in September 2009. Doomsayers had alleged that the LHC could create a small black hole that would become a huge black hole that would eat the planet.
When the clock moved from 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1999, and struck midnight, all of the computers in the world mistakenly believed that the year 2000 was in fact the year 1900. The stock market fell into chaos, planes fell out of the sky, and nuclear silos launched their missiles. Or at least that's the way it was supposed to happen, according to some doomsayers. It turned out the first year of the new millennium arrived without a hitch -- just like the 1,000 years that preceded it.
In 1555, Nostradamus predicted that the world would come to an end 444 years later -- possibly. Given the cryptic nature of his writings, it's difficult to determine what exactly he thought was going to happen in 1999. Point is: It didn't.
Not all religious predictions of the end of the world are rooted in the Bible. Heaven's Gate, a cult that first appeared in the 1970s and was based out of San Diego, Calif., believed that the end of the world was approaching. Furthermore, they were convinced that the Comet Hale-Bopp was actually being tailed by a UFO upon which they could escape the impending apocalypse. To board the ship, a group of 39 members of Heaven's Gate committed mass suicide in March of 1997. The comet continued its journey through the cosmos and the Earth was left behind in the same shape as always.
What happens when a NASA engineer dabbles in doomsday prophecies? The same thing that happens when anyone else dabbles in doomsday prophecies. Edgar Whisenant, a NASA employee, published a book called "88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988," which was a bestseller. In it, Whisenant looked for the same kinds of numerical clues in the Bible that Camping uses to predict his May 21 doomsday. Whisenant's conclusion, however, was that the world was set to end in September 1988. The days came and went, and Whisenant attempted to revise his prediction several times. But unlike Camping, Whisenant appears to have lost credibility after his first doomsday came and went.
In the 1974 bestselller The Jupiter Effect, authors John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann predicted that an alignment of the planets on March 10, 1982, would throw our global climate into chaos. Although the enormous storms and massive change in the speed of Earth's rotation never came to fruition on that day, there was one observed -- and unexpected -- global change that could be associated with the event: High tides on that day were .04 millimeters higher. Similar theories tying planetary alignments to doomsday have cropped up since, the most famous of which was supposed to occur when Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn lined up with the sun and the moon on May 5, 2000.
After Joseph Smith founded Mormonism in the 1820s, he didn't have much time to get his fledgling religion off the ground. After all, years later in 1835 he predicted that the world was set to end within 56 years. Mormons, however, contend that Smith's sermon in 1835 was misinterpreted and was not in fact an end-times prediction, asserting that Smith had previously stated he didn't know the date of the Second Coming.
If you think the party's over after May 21, you'd be wrong. We've got plenty more doomsdays coming up. 2012 is in fact chocked full of doomsday theories, the most famous of which being the prediction attributed to the Mayans that foretells the end of the world to be Dec. 21, 2012. How the Mayan apocalypse will play out is much debated among doomsday believers. Everything from a solar flare to a collision with a mysterious planet has been suggested as a possible end-times scenario.
If you manage to stick around until 2060, then you'll be just in time to see this final doomsday scenario play out. A handwritten scribbling on a note left behind by this famous face predicted as such. And who is this puffy haired maniac who declared the end of the world in 2060? None other than Sir Isaac Newton.
The Doomsday Clock hasn’t ticked any further in the past year, with the minute hand still reading five minutes to midnight.
In their report directed to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the members of the U.N. Security Council, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the organization behind this iconic and ominous symbol of global vulnerability, cited limited strides to reducing nuclear stockpiles; the spread of civilian nuclear power applications, potentially creating new nuclear weapons states; and inaction on climate change, among other reasons, for keeping the clock unchanged.
First conceived in 1947, when it appeared on the Bulletin’s cover, the Doomsday Clock was a potent metaphor in a bygone era in which two global superpowers stared down one another, each backed by an arsenal the likes of which history had never seen.
When the Soviet Union kicked off the nuclear arms race with its first successful test of an atomic bomb, the Doomsday Clock stood at a mere three minutes to midnight. Four years later, humanity ended closer than it ever had to a civilization-ending event by the clock’s standard, when it display just two minutes to midnight.
Since then, the Doomsday Clock has periodically added and subtracted minutes as the 20th century has unfolded. But even after the Soviet Union dissolved, the clock remained ever watchful not just for nuclear, but for other threats as well to the existence of our species.
The Doomsday Clock has run its course, however. Here’s why it’s time to retire this 20th-century icon:
The Cold War is over. The threat of global nuclear annihilation, the reason for the creation of the Doomsday Clock, isn’t what it used to be in the public consciousness. When the clock debuted in 1947, it resonated with audiences who believed a spark that would lead to nuclear apocalypse could be right around the corner.
Despite the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, international concern about the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs and the nearly 20,000 nuclear weapons deployed around the world, other global threats proved more concerning around the world, according to a survey last year by the Pew Research Center, with climate change topping the list. These are threats whose impact is not felt in a flash, as alluded to with the countdown clock, but rather over many years and without the same sense of finality.
In the search for relevant threats, the Bulletin has turned from political reality to technological fantasy. International political developments still govern the movement of the minute hand on the clock, as does speculation about their future course. But the Bulletin also includes other potential hazards that have little to do with today’s reality.
Included alongside the threats listed above are “cyber weapons” and “killer robots.” While cyber attacks and drones have certainly caused damage in terms of property and lives and the increasing threats they pose in the future, neither are on the scale to justify their consideration as harbingers of doomsday.
Even the inclusion of global climate change seems a touch hyperbolic. Though certainly devastating and potentially catastrophic, global warming does not pose the kind of immediate civilization-ending impact that does an intercontinental thermonuclear missile deluge envisioned at the start of the nuclear race. In fact, that kind of alarmism might even be counterproductive in terms of encouraging action to mitigate the negative effects of climate change.
HowStuffWorks: Do Doomsday Scenarios Discourage People From Acting on Climate Change?
Doomsday predictions are becoming less fashionable. Given the so-called Mayan apocalypse, Harold Camping and a string of bad movies about the apocalypse, doomsday has lost its punch and is more of a punchline, if anything. The Bulletin devised the Doomsday Clock in order to issue a serious warning about the vulnerability to extinction at our own hands, but continuing to shout doomsday only muffles the volume of that message.
The clock is just a bad metaphor. More of a personal nitpick, but the best way to demonstrate the finality of global nuclear holocaust might not be a clock that turns back time every now and again.
In light of the ever-increasing dangers posed by climate change, might we suggest a goose with a thermometer sticking out of it? Once it gets to a certain temperature, then we know we’re cooked.
Photo: The Doomsday Clock is set at five minutes to midnight. Credit: Getty Images