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The doomsday clock keeps ticking

The Bomb and I are going back. In Seattle, where I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, it was commonly believed that in the event of a nuclear war, we were number two on the target list, because Seattle was home to Boeing, maker of B-52 bombers and Minuteman missiles.

At school we did various exercises for different disasters and had to remember which was which. Earthquake? Run outside. The bomb? Run inside, to a windowless interior hallway. In the summer, my high school friends and I would disappear for a few weeks into the backcountry of the Cascades or the Olympic Mountains. I always wondered if we would find the world in ashes.

Once, in Santa Monica in 1971, I thought it was finally happening. I woke up on the floor, having been thrown out of my bed early one February morning. There was a huge roar. Everything was shaking. I crept to my only window and pulled aside the curtain, expecting to see a mushroom cloud rising over the Los Angeles basin. I did not see anything. When the radio came back on, I learned that there had been a deadly earthquake in the San Fernando Valley.

I was sent on this trip down memory lane by the January 23 announcement in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that it had decided not to change the setting of the Doomsday Clock, a metaphorical watch invented in 1947 to dramatize the threat. of nuclear Armageddon. The clock was originally designed with a 15-minute countdown to midnight – the death blow – and Bulletin members move it from time to time in response to current events, which now include threats such as the climate change and pandemics.

In a burst of optimism in 1991, after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the signing of the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the clock returned to 17 minutes to midnight. “The Cold War is over,” write the editors of the Bulletin. “The 40-year East-West nuclear arms race is over. »

A year ago, after Russia invaded Ukraine and threatened to use nuclear weapons, the clock was set to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest to the End. The nuclear threat to Ukraine has diminished since then, but the clock remains at 90 seconds to zero.

This year’s announcement came on the same day that “Oppenheimer,” Christopher Nolan’s biopic about the man who led the invention of the bomb, received 13 Oscar nominations. In an interview before the film’s release, Mr. Nolan described J. Robert Oppenheimer as the most important human in history because his invention made war impossible or doomed us to annihilation.

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