Real Media Riffs - Thursday, Jan 18, 2007

IT'S 11:55, DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR CHILDREN ARE? -- Well, if you listen to some of the world's smartest minds, they are in grave peril - perhaps their gravest yet. But hey, what do they know? The real focus of today's column is a magazine. It's always been one of our favorites, but we doubt many readers have ever heard of it, much less picked up a copy. And we know it's certainly never made it on any of your schedules. It's called The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

We first stumbled on it in our college days back in the late 1970s, when the Cold War was still rather chilly and the threat of nuclear holocaust still loomed large. If you grew up in the 1960s as we did, you were probably obsessed with nuclear annihilation. It was drilled into us at an early age - literally. We conducted civil defense drills in grade school. We remember our first grade teacher Mrs. Weber pulling down the shades on the humongous windows that lined our classroom, as she told us to duck our heads under our desks, and even at the naïve age of six we knew there was something wrong with this picture. Once they even paraded our entire grade down into the basement of P.S. 105 in the Bronx, a horrifying sight itself: dark, dingy and lined with piles of coal used to stoke the school's furnace, and illuminated by the yellowed glow of overhead incandescent bulbs. It was like a scene out of a Dante poem or a David Lynch movie: a bit like what we imagined hell might be like. And we thought, "If this is where American school children have to go to be prepared, well then, we may already be there."



Anyway, that pretty much sums up our childhood. At some point, we began worrying not about ours, but about those of the generations to come. And whether there might actually be any. So we found ourselves leafing through the more obscure periodicals sections of our college library, where we stumbled upon two publications that fueled our nuclear lighting rods, bolting us into a new obsession with nuclear holocaust. One was McGraw-Hill's Aviation Week & Space Technology, a superbly written and edited trade publication that was as chilling in the coverage of its trade as it was proficient. Its trade, of course, was ballistics, and reading about the latest technological marvels, military industrial contracts, and global security breaches in the professional, objective and dispassionate way that Aviation Week's reporters covered it, seemed almost surreal - something out of a Kubrick film maybe.

It also served as a stark contrast to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was and is unabashedly alarmist about the very same subject matter. It's the reason it was conceived. And it was conceived by the people who should know why we should be alarmed: the very same people who conceived of The Bomb. The Bulletin was launched in 1945 by the very same University of Chicago scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project and were deeply concerned about the use of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. In 1947, these alarmists even added a clock to help visualize how perilously close we might be getting toward, well, doomsday. So they coined it the Doomsday Clock, and used it to show how close its hands moved toward and away from midnight each month. Yesterday, the clock struck 11:55.

What's most interesting is one of the new reasons why the scientists reset their clock, moving it ahead two minutes from its previous setting of 11:53. It was only the 17th time in 60 years that The Bulletin had reset its clock. The last time was in February 2002, following the events of 9/11. It's not simply nuclear proliferation that these geniuses are worried about, but the dramatic climatic shifts that have been occurring over the past several decades. That's interesting, because historically, atomic scientists reserved their climatic concerns to nuclear winters, not global warming. But in a joint announcement with the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. and the Royal Society in London supporting the decision to move the hand of the Doomsday Clock, The Bulletin added climate change to their doomsday scenario.

Since the ending of the Cold War, we've more or less been lulled into our natural state of false security, but The Bulletin reminded us that an estimated 2,000 nuclear weapons are ready to launch "within minutes." We hope they don't mean five minutes.

Okay, so how did these brainiacs make the leap from seven minutes to five, and from simple nuclear horror to a climatic one? Because of a common culprit: man.

"As scientists, we understand the dangers of nuclear weapons and their devastating effects, and we are learning how human activities and technologies are affecting climate systems in ways that may forever change life on Earth." That's Stephen Hawking, one of The Bulletin's sponsors, professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of The Royal Society, and, some say, the smartest member of that frequently stupid species.

"As citizens of the world, we have a duty to alert the public to the unnecessary risks that we live with every day, and to the perils we foresee if governments and societies do not take action now to render nuclear weapons obsolete and to prevent further climate change," Hawking adds.

We don't expect you to run down to your local newsstand to grab a copy of The Bulletin along with your latest issue of Maxim. Chances are you won't find it there. But if you're curious, care about your children, or just your own butt, you can always check them out online at So, set your watches. We know we'll be watching.

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