The Doomsday Clock Takes A Step Back

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has reset its famous "Doomsday Clock," a symbolic marker of how close the world is to annihilation by humans. Physicist Lawrence Krauss explains why the scientists feel a bit more optimistic about the world's chances for survival.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Im Ira Flatow.

With a great deal of fanfare, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has reset the Doomsday Clock. That's that symbolic measure of how close we are to annihilating ourselves. It has reset it back, back one minute. Humanity is now 60 seconds further away from destroying itself, according to the group, who have - who has been maintaining the clock since 1947.

And back then, the clock stood at seven minutes to midnight. Including this latest resetting, the clock has been moved 19 times - 19. It now stands at six minutes to midnight. And joining me now to talk more about the clock, why it was moved and what that represents is my guest Lawrence Krauss, co-chair of the Board of Sponsors for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and he also director of the Origins Initiative, co-director of the Cosmology Initiative and a founding - foundation professor at Arizona State University in Tempe. Welcome back. Good to see you, Lawrence.

Professor´┐ŻLAWRENCE KRAUSS (Arizona State University in Tempe): It's always nice to be here. Always nice to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: So why did you decide on what you were going to do with the clock?

Prof. KRAUSS: Well, as always, it's a difficult decision. There's many factors. There's a lot of rising tensions in the world in certain places, in Iran, et cetera. But I think that the main factor was that there's been a sense that there's been a sea change in the possibility for international cooperation regarding both nuclear weapons and climate change.

There are now - largely, one would have to say, as a result of the election of Barack Obama - new international talks and agreements to reduce arms. And so because of that, we felt that the net - there was a net plus, but in fact, it's the first time in its history that we just moved it by one minute.

FLATOW: Oh, is that right?

Prof. KRAUSS: Yeah, it's always moved by larger segments than that. And the message we want to send by that is that that small movement presages a potentially much larger movement, which could go in one direction or another.

If we don't follow up on all the talk that's been happening with action, it could go much closer to midnight. On the other hand, if all of these things that we hope are going to happen happen, it could move much further away.

FLATOW: Well, these things that you're talking about, it used to be just about nuclear bombs.

Prof. KRAUSS: Yeah.

FLATOW: Now you've substituted global warming, or rather, you've added that.

Prof. KRAUSS: We've tried to look at what all the global threats are to humanity. The idea behind the clock is to reflect the global threats to humanity, and we've looked at three different areas primarily: obviously, nuclear weapons and nuclear war, and now global climate change, which is clearly a global threat. And also, we've looked at biotechnology and bioterrorism and decided while we've been following that, that it doesn't yet reflect a potentially global threat. So it's an important thing to look at, but not yet.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You mentioned President Obama as being instrumental in your decision. Are you saying that if it had been a different president, it might have gone a different way?

Prof. KRAUSS: No. It's not - it doesn't reflect that in any way. What it reflects is the actions that have taken place since Obama has become president. Had a different president taken those actions, then the conclusion would have been the same. The idea that we are actually beginning to engage other nations in negotiations - and, in fact, there's a few things.

Obama's the first president to openly state that we should live in a world free of nuclear weapons, which is no longer such a radical proposal after George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn and others have proposed that.

And so really, it's because of what he's done initially as president that really has produced a change in perspective. And even Copenhagen, which has had its own problems, at least - for the first time, nations came together and at least agreed to try and reduce greenhouse gases. And, of course, it was disappointing, but I think that the net feeling was that we're at a time where there's really, perhaps for the first time in history, the hope of beginning to move forward in that direction. And that hope alone was perhaps enough to move it back one minute. And - but we're sending a message.

The one minute really means the clock's ticking, and if we don't act on this at this really almost unique time, this unique opportunity to do something, then it's quite likely we're going to move much closer to midnight.

FLATOW: If countries adopt more nuclear power plants, as they say they're going to be building, doesn't that put more potential nuclear materials at risk for terrorism or something like that?

Prof. KRAUSS: Absolutely. And that's an issue that we've had to think about. In fact, we recommend that we do not do a wholesale growth in nuclear power as a way to purely combat climate change. But at the same time, we need to - if we're going to recognize that nuclear power is going to be a part of the package, we have to control fissile material. We have to have international agreements to control fissile material. And, in fact, President Obama supported a treaty to do just that.

So you're right, that as we try and combat climate change, it's going to introduce other potential threats, and we have to balance those.

FLATOW: Who decides when to make a move or how to make a move? It's not done on a regular basis.

Prof. KRAUSS: It hasn't been done on a regular basis at all. It's been done when there was a sense that there's important developments in the world that should cause that to change. It's not done - I should say it's not done in response to the immediate crises, either.

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. KRAUSS: It's - as the - in fact, the Bulletin has now evolved to become a much more - to try and reach out to the public because one of the things we say - and I tried to say it yesterday, when we moved the clock back - is that scientists have a responsibility to speak out to the public, to try and help them understand what the issues are.

Government officials have a responsibility to act against these global threats. But really, this is only going to happen if there's strong public support.

And so the Bulletin has moved and become, in fact, an organization to take back the - turn back the clock, and is now an organization online and has moved to, in fact, to try and affect public opinion. Because ultimately, that is going to be the driver if we're really - you know, Einstein, 65 years ago, said, after the first atomic bomb, he said: Everything has changed, save the way we think.

And that's the point. We really have to get people to think globally about these issues and realize that there is no such thing as a sane use of nuclear weapons in any way, and that we are far safer with far fewer, and that we have to combat, as a world, issues of global climate change, which is not just being modeled, but is actually happening and can be measured.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you're saying that scientists themselves need to speak out, and if they were listened to, they would say that we would be safer without the nuclear weapons.

Prof. KRAUSS: Absolutely. I think that scientists have spoken out many times, and in a useful way, to try and influence this. The most effective time I can think of is the 1972 ABM Treaty, Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, where scientists played a role in basically convincing the government that we couldn't have a viable anti-ballistic missile system. And we're trying to again, in fact.

And I think the point is that scientists shouldn't be lobbying, but we need to provide the information that's necessary for the public and government officials to act. And we also are quite aware of the devastating effects of nuclear weapons.

Here's a recent result, for example. People have often thought, well, a limited nuclear war is terrible, but it's limited. Well, a recent study by a group of physicists has pointed out that even a limited nuclear war between Pakistan and India - one with, say, 100 nuclear weapons - would be devastating enough to globally affect the climate around the world for at least a decade. And so...

FLATOW: From the fallout.

Prof. KRAUSS: Not just from the fallout, from the soot, the dust, the five million tons of smoke that'll be dumped in the stratosphere. And they've done serious studies that now suggest that even a limited nuclear war could - and, of course, a much larger one would, indeed, affect global climate for a much longer period.

And so people have to realize that we're not - you know, while we worry about nuclear terrorism here and we may think that a nuclear war on the other side of the world is a problem, but it's a problem for them, it's not. It's a problem for all of humanity.

FLATOW: I haven't heard, you know, people talk much about this since Carl Sagan brought up nuclear winter concept. And that was the only connection to the environment that we heard, you know, since the '50s, when we were waiting for a radiation cloud to come around.

Prof. KRAUSS: Exactly. And that caused a great back-reaction, but more studies have been done and indeed suggest that nuclear winter, if there were a global nuclear exchange - of course, if there's a global nuclear exchange, the winter may be not the worst thing that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, one thing that was - one thing I didn't realize and that was pointed out - I attended that meeting of scientists yesterday - is that there are still hair-trigger weapons. What is that?

Prof. KRAUSS: Again, this a remarkable and scary thing. Most people don't realize that in spite of the fact that the Cold War is over, we're acting like it hasn't - it isn't over. Both the United States and the Soviet - and Russia have at least a thousand weapons on launch-on-warning alert, which means if there's a signal that perhaps there's a nuclear warhead coming toward us, they launch within 15 minutes.

Now, in the case where we were worried about mutually assured destruction, where we were worried about a huge, you know, thousand-warhead incoming attack, then we needed to act quickly. But there's no sensible reason, now that the Cold War is over, to have that strategy. And yet we have it, and it is an accident waiting to happen.

FLATOW: It's still there, waiting...

Prof. KRAUSS: Yeah, it's still there. And a number of people, including someone yesterday at our meeting, suggested that we could unilaterally take our missiles off launch-on-warning and, in fact, not be any less safe but potentially more safe, and induce Russia to do the same thing.

There's no - there's so many aspects of current nuclear policy that are fallbacks to a time that doesn't exist any longer and that don't have any strategic value. In fact, a lot of Americans don't realize we have no first-use policy.

And they think, oh, the United States would never be the first ones to use nuclear weapons again. We did once. We won't do it again. We don't have such a policy, in spite of the fact that, again, there's no rational first use that one could think of - or moral first use, for that matter.

FLATOW: And it was also interesting to hear that scientists were saying that if you just took the word out of - you took nuclear and you put climate change in there, you'd have the same feeling about the inevitability of what could happen if we don't do something about climate change.

Prof. KRAUSS: Absolutely. There are so many things that are similar. In fact, the movement of the clock was similar for both of them, too. Copenhagen at least brought people together and people recognizing that climate change needs to be dealt with, and we need to address real reductions in carbon dioxide. But it's mostly been talk, and not yet action.

And so there's hope because of that talk, but if we don't act, and it then -then the inevitability of what's going to happen is dramatic, and the same is -if...

FLATOW: So basically, if we didn't act, like on nuclear weapons, there's going to be a use of them. And if you don't act on climate change, it's - inevitably something's going to happen.

Prof. KRAUSS: Yeah, and at the risk - you know, I don't want to scare people, but the longer we preserve nuclear weapons and the more nuclear weapons there are in the world, the more likely there will be their use, even by terrorists. And it will be - we shouldn't be lulled by the fact that there have been 65 years of non-nuclear use since World War II.

The likelihood that there will be a use of them in this century against a civilian population is large, and the effects would be catastrophic, and we can't be complacent.

FLATOW: All right. Lawrence, thank you for coming today.

Prof. KRAUSS: Thanks again. It's always good to be here.

FLATOW: Lawrence Krauss is co-chair of the Board of Sponsors for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, also director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University in Tempe. We're going to take a short break and come back and talk a little about the 50th anniversary of the laser, all the things laser has done for us. It's not without a little controversy. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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