What is a “Doomsday Clock” and should we be scared?

Today, the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists announced that the Doomsday Clock is still set at “three minutes” to “midnight,” and no this isn’t the set up for a new superhero movie. The announcement that the so-called clock would not move closer to midnight was made in DC this afternoon. But the clock isn’t really a clock and it isn’t really ticking down, so what does it actually mean? And who are the people who came up with it?

The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947, two years after the formation of the sinister-sounded Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists. The group was founded by the team who worked on the first atomic bomb at the University of Chicago, and now is made up of physicists and scientists from around the world, as well as 16 Nobel laureates.

In addition to keeping an eye on the state of the world in a totally not-freaky way (think of them as a benevolent group of atomic scientists making sure we don’t run Earth off the rails too quickly), the group updates the “Doomsday Clock” every year. Midnight is meant to signify a cataclysmic event that would bring about the end of civilization and threaten all of humanity, like a nuclear war. The minute hand moves closer or farther away, depending on how much a threat we pose to ourselves. Super not scary or dark at all, right?

Over the years, the Doomsday Clock hasn’t always shifted closer to midnight. It was at two minutes to midnight in 1953, but dropped back to seventeen minutes to midnight in 1991. In recent years it has moved closer, moving from five minutes to three minutes last year.

Given the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States that was underway back in 1947, and the fact that the Bulletin was founded by the very people who made the first atomic bomb, it’s easy to imagine why the idea came about. But as the Bulletin says themselves, even though the chances of a nuclear war between Russia and the United States isn’t really a concern, there are still serious issues the world at large is facing.

This year the decision was made not to move the minute hand at all, meaning we’re not closer to the end of the world than we were last year. The issues taken into account in making the decision included North Korea’s recently alleged detonation of a nuclear device and climate change. Or, as the Bulletin themselves said, “extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity.” The decision also has a lot to do with record temps this year. NASA just announced that the year of 2015 was the hottest in history.

But there’s a way to “move back the clock.” According to The Verge, “The Bulletin says the best way to move the clock back is to dramatically reduce spending on nuclear weapons programs.” And in regards to the imminent threat of global warming, the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists suggest that “the countries that are part of the global warming pact must follow through on their promises.”

So although the Doomsday Clock doesn’t mean the end times are just three minutes away (it’s just a symbolic representation of how “close” we are to doomsday), it does mean we all have to do our part to try and make a better world before we hit midnight.

(Image via Universal Pictures)