The Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists

Lately, it seems far too many magazines can hear the clock ticking. A few good ones have even run out of time. But for one, a clock counting down the minutes left to its doomsday has actually been a good thing -- if you can call the thing it has been keeping time on, "good." The publication is called The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and the "doomsday clock" that graces its homepage (formerly its cover -- the print edition was suspended in 2008) has been counting down the minutes left to a nuclear Armageddon ever since the birth of the atomic age and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

I doubt many of you have actually read it, and I know none of you have ever placed it on a plan (it does not carry advertising), and even though I'd include it among my list of favorite magazines, I haven't read an issue of it in nearly 30 years. That changed today when the editors of the Bulletin decided to turn the latest movement of their doomsday hands into an event, and streamed it live on the Internet today. And you'll be somewhat relieved to learn that they moved doomsday back one minute to six minutes to "midnight."

Phew! Citing a more "hopeful state of world affairs" related to the threat of nuclear war -- and, as I was surprised to learn from checking out the latest edition, climate change -- the Bulletin moved doomsday's hands backwards.

I was surprised about the focus on world climate, because when I used to thumb through the Bulletin in my college days in the early '80s, it was all about nuclear proliferation, diplomacy, military stability and the potential effects a nuclear war would have on the biology of planet earth and the things that live on it. But it makes sense that the Bulletin would broaden its mandate to include modern-day threats to humanity, and sure enough, its current issue is chockful of insights about climate change, biological threats, and even genetics.

Among the main features in the January/February edition is an interview with Harvard geneticist George Church, as well as more conventional fare, including a profile on the current state of Russia's nuclear forces.

So you may wonder why the Bulletin is one of my favorite magazines, and why I've chosen to write about it now. Part of it must be that growing up in the '60s in the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis and the frigidness of the Cold War, I was a little obsessed with nuclear annihilation. Some of the other must-reads in my college days were McGraw-Hill's Aviation Week & Space Technology and Jane's Defence Weekly, which are like military industrial porn, showcasing the latest in weapons of mass destruction.

But a more important reason for reading the Bulletin now is that it does what any great magazine should: provide context on some important issues, and make us understand how they affect the world we live in. In fact, I would argue that it may be the most important magazine performing that function, when you think about what's at stake in its subject matter.

I eventually overcame my obsession with nuclear annihilation, and stopped reading the Bulletin in the post-Glasnost era of nuclear stability, but I never lost sight of the horrors that humans -- especially brilliant scientific thinkers -- could unleash on our world. And it wasn't until I read an even more horrifying piece of magazine journalism -- an article former Sun Microsystems Chief Scientist Bill Joy wrote for Wired magazine some years ago, entitled, "Why The Future Doesn't Need Us," that anything approached the kind of reasoned exposition about humanity's potential to disintermediate itself, than what I read in the Bulletin during the height of the Cold War.

But now that I know the Bulletin has broadened its mandate to include other modern-day issues -- and even some important futuristic ones -- I think I'm going to start reading it again. It's not necessarily the kind of pleasant or diversionary subject matter I get from some of my other favorite publications, but it's definitely matter worthy of our attention.


Published by: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Frequency: Online only, every other month
Web site:

1 comment about "The Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists".
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  1. Monica Bower from TERiX Computer Service, January 14, 2010 at 9:24 p.m.

    Joe, that Bill Joy article has stuck with me since I read that article as well. Not with a bang but a whimper, indeed. Great piece on a magazine I hadn't thought of since I was probably fifteen.

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