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Does The History Of The Doomsday Clock Make You Feel Better Or Worse About Right Now?

Turn Back the Clock, a new exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, traces how we’ve responded to the threats of nuclear war and climate change for the past 70 years–and how we can take action on those issues now.

In 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists debuted the Doomsday Clock in the June issue of their publication. A simple illustration, the clock would, over the years, become a barometer of the severity of the state of global crisis. The closer the minute hand to midnight, the more under threat our safety was. As the Cold War swung the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation, the clock ticked precipitously close to midnight, only to creep back to a healthy quarter-to as the world settled into relative peace in the early 1990s.

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“[People] need to be aware of and talk about these issues as a step toward making the world a better place and keeping us safe.” [Photo: J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry]
But now, with the consequences of climate change looming as Donald Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, and the possibility of nuclear warfare very much back on the table, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board, who–with the input of experts in the fields of environmental science, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and biosecurity–determine where the minute hand should rest to most accurately reflect our current state of crisis, has set the Doomsday Clock at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. By their metric, our planet is a half a minute as close to total destruction as we were in 1953, when both the United States and the Soviet Union, at the height of the Cold War, tested hydrogen bombs.

“At its heart, this exhibit is really abut how science and technology are part and parcel of the way the world works.” [Photo: J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry]
Faced with the daily onslaught of grim news and grimmer predictions, confronting the cold, hard truth of the Doomsday Clock may not seem like an appealing exercise. But to the organizers of the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) in Chicago, now is exactly the moment to bring fresh attention to the clock and all that it represents.

Turn Back the Clock, an exhibit that just opened at MSI, articulates the factors that determine the clock’s ticking, and describes how 70 years of living in the nuclear age might inform our current crisis era.

This June is the 70th anniversary of the clock’s creation, but it is also, according to Turn Back the Clock’s director Patricia Ward, a time to see the clock as a way to understand how our actions and decisions are affecting the safety and security of the world, and begin to examine how to roll the minute hand back into non-crisis territory.

“At its heart, this exhibit is really abut how science and technology are part and parcel of the way the world works,” Ward tells Fast Company. “We want people to come here and find a way to understand that, and recognize that even if they don’t grasp the nitty gritty of the circumstances, they need to be aware of and talk about these issues as a step toward making the world a better place and keeping us safe.”

[Photo: J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry]
The exhibit, which was designed by the agency Luci Creative, opens with the clock’s inception in the post-World War II years, when the artist Martyl Langsdorf, who was married to one of the physicists developing the atomic bomb through the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago, designed the clock as a way to call public attention to the gravity of the developments underway, and convey the urgency the scientists felt to inform people of what the bomb signifies.

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From there, Turn Back the Clock tracks the movement of the minute hand, from when it hovered around midnight during the Cold War, to rolling back to 17 minutes from midnight in 1991 with the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, to striking three minutes to midnight in 2015 under the threat of unmitigated climate change.

In addition to the cultural paraphernalia that surround the clock’s movements–there’s an atomic energy lab kit, developed for children to play with in the 1970s, along with a projection of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which both testify to how we metabolized the threats the clock measures–Turn Back the Clock, Ward says, is really focused on the idea of collaboration and cooperation. The exhibit features original correspondence between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Albert Einstein about both the potential for developing nuclear weapons and the great responsibility that would entail. It also documents the exchanges between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that led to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, in which both the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to eliminate their shorter-range missile stock.

“Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.” [Photo: J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry]
“We made a point to include these stories that show how collaboration and cooperation have kept us safe for the 70 years that the clock has been in existence–how it leads to action and positive impact,” Ward says.

Turn Back the Clock ends with a statement from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”

Accounting for the fact that fewer and fewer Americans place any trust in the wisdom of their elected officials, through the exhibit, MSI wants “to inspire a sense of agency in individuals,” Analog voting stations throughout the exhibit ask visitors to record how they feel about the state of the world; if they’ve had a discussion about any of the topics in the exhibit with someone they’ve disagreed with; if they’ve reached out and contacted a representative with their thoughts. While it may not feel like citizens have much of a say in the direction of global events, Ward says that informing yourself is the first step. “One of the simplest things you can do is become aware and talk to people about these issues.”

And there’s a comment book at the end of the exhibit where visitors are asked to write what they would say to their leaders if they thought their voice could make a difference. Ward’s hope is that from the exhibit, people will take those thoughts and turn them into letters and calls that they make to the people elected as our representatives.

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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