In 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists turned on the Doomsday Clock. First set at “seven minutes to midnight,” the metaphorical clock reminds us of the extinction-level peril all around us: the threat of global thermonuclear conflict, now along with climate disaster and various other technological threats. This week, the Bulletin updated the clock to 100 seconds to midnight—the closest it has ever been. “In so doing,” the group wrote in a statement, “board members are explicitly warning leaders and citizens around the world that the international security situation is now more dangerous than it has ever been, even at the height of the Cold War.”
As a grandchild of the Cold War, I learned about the Doomsday Clock not in real life but by reading Alan Moore’s popular 1987 graphic novel Watchmen, upon which Damon Lindelof’s recent HBO adaptation is based. The Watchmen canon dramatizes what can happen when society takes the Doomsday Clock too seriously. In the story, a self-styled superhero named Ozymandias secretly orchestrates an attack on New York City, devised to shock humanity out of the nuclear arms race. The Doomsday Clock ticks forward throughout the novel, and just before it reaches midnight, Ozymandias arranges for the murder of 3 million people by a mysterious villain to unify the world’s nations against a known villain: mutually assured destruction.