Keeping track of the end of time While the Doomsday Clock continues to tick, its keepers at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists strive to prevent us from ever reaching the final hour.

CATCHING UP WITH... THE DOOMSDAY CLOCK

September 06, 1998|By STEVE RHODES | STEVE RHODES,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When international affairs reach a certain level of tension -- nuclear testing, border wars, instablility inside a major power -- the phone in Mike Moore's office inevitably rings. Journalists on the line have one simple question: "Are you going to change the clock?"

Moore, a former newspaperman himself, is editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and thus the public keeper of the Doomsday Clock, which, since 1945 has served as a symbol of how close the world is to nuclear disaster.

At its best, in the optimism after 1991's arms-control agreements, the clock has stood at 17 minutes to midnight. At its worst, after both the United States and the Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs in 1953, it's ticked all the way to two minutes to midnight. The changing hands of the clock, which are approved by the bulletin's board of directors, have become a media staple. The most recent reports came in June, after nuclear tests in India and Pakistan moved the hands of the clock from 14 to just nine minutes before the doomsday hour.

But resetting the clock isn't exactly a full-time job. Between crises, Moore edits the Bulletin. The bimonthly magazine carries the clock on every cover, but rarely gets much attention outside wonkish public-policy circles despite its steady reputation within the peace, security and arms-control communities.

"We like to think we're influential," says Moore. "All the ideas that have been accepted in bilateral arms control, or in international arms control, were pioneered by the kind of people who write for the Bulletin."

Started 'to save the world'

The Bulletin was founded in 1945 by the scientists and engineers who invented the first atomic bomb and were grappling with the moral implications of what they had wrought. Their initial goal was to create what became the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"They really believed if there was some kind of international atomic-control agency that weapons would fade away and the peaceful uses of atomic energy would flourish," says Moore. It was an idea, he adds, that "may have been a little bit naive."

Even the original atomic scientists could not comprehend the world they were ushering in. The aftermath of the nuclear detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki only quickened their concern.

"We were stunned almost to a state of disbelief by the magnitude of the destruction accompanying the birth of the new age," John Simpson, the first chairman of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago, wrote in the Bulletin in a 1991 reminiscence.

In the Bulletin, science was able to document its misgivings. The first issue, a six-page newsletter, appeared in December 1945 as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago. It was edited by a former soccer reporter for Russia's Pravda who had escaped to the West.

"It was started - and I don't know how to make this sound less grandiose - to save the world," Moore says.

The original Bulletins were no-gloss, simple typographical affairs without covers. That changed with the June 1947 issue, fronted in a brazen orange with a 7-by-7-inch clock face indicating a countdown to doomsday of seven minutes to midnight.

The stories, by and large, remained without color, however. Take these offerings from the May 1948 issue: "The Dispersal of Cities as a Defense Measure," "A Preliminary Draft of a World Constitution," "The Exposition of Truth, Isotopes and Their Application to Peacetime Use of Atomic Energy."

Not just for scientists

Today's Bulletin is much broader in scope. "We bring you international reporting on global security - new voices from every corner of the globe," the magazine states. "Timely stories on nuclear issues and international affairs ... and powerful ideas for creating a safer world."

Recent issues have featured cover stories on Mexico's conflict with Zapatista rebels in the state of Chiapas and on a controversial new jet fighter; the September/October issue will feature a story on Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program, based on interviews with an Iraqi defector the magazine has been working with. And, of course, today's magazine has a Web site - http://www.bullatomsci.org.

"The name of the magazine is very counter-intuitive," Moore says. "The name of the magazine not only does not communicate what the magazine is about, it suggests very clearly that whatever it is, it's going to be technical: Atomic Scientists, that's the bulletin for rocket scientists, or something like that.

"But it's never been a terribly technical thing. It's always been about public-policy issues. We've always been oriented toward peace and security issues. We say it with a straight face - we're against war."

The Bulletin deals not just with nuclear war, but border conflicts, arms trading, biological weapons - any and all types of security issues.

"We look at the possibility that people are doing the dumb thing," Moore says. "Everybody has the capability of doing the dumb thing."

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