Sun might get us before atomic bombs do

What is it with scientists and clocks? Yes, determining the duration of phenomena is important to research, not to forget seemingly unconnected realms like navigation — Britain ruled the waves for centuries, thanks to John Harrison’s clock, accurate time-keeping being the key to determining longitude.

Clocks also serve science as metaphor — start with Albert Einstein, struggling to jibe the fixed speed of light with his aborning theory of relativity, looking at the medieval clock tower in Bern and realizing that time is not fixed, but elastic. He started sending notional clocks zipping at the speed of light in thought experiments, trying to nudge us dullards into comprehension.

The practical value of Einstein’s 1905 musings was dramatically demonstrated at the University of Chicago in 1942, when the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction was midwifed by Enrico Fermi.

So it makes sense that another fine Hyde Park institution, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — founded in 1945 by Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer and friends — would in 1947 use a clock as its logo, its hands set at seven minutes to midnight to convey the risk of nuclear Armageddon at the start of the Cold War. The editors took to moving the hands forward and back, warning the world how close to nuclear annihilation it was at the moment and — not incidentally, in my view — continuing the best marketing campaign for a publication other than Sports Illustrated featuring swimsuit models every February.

That didn’t end so well for them — Sports Illustrated fired its entire staff Friday, effectively ceasing as a publication. But the Bulletin is going strong, and on Tuesday announced the clock would remain at 90 seconds to midnight, same as last year.

“Ominous trends continue to point the world toward global catastrophe,” is the doozy of an opening line in the Bulletin’s announcement.

I paid particular attention this year since the University of Chicago’s International House is hosting “a conversation on the existential crises facing our planet and how we can turn back the hands of the Doomsday Clock” on Feb. 6, featuring Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and Daniel Holz, a U. of C. physics, astronomy and astrophysics professor and chair of the Bulletin’s science and security board. They asked me to moderate the discussion.

Seeing my face on the poster, alongside these two eminences, that old Sesame Street song started up in my head: “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong …” Yes, my father was an atomic scientist at NASA. But knowledge isn’t hereditary, alas — if it were, we wouldn’t have jamokes like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. soiling their family names.

I accepted the job — gets me out of the house and among these “people” I hear so much about. But I had to ask: Why me? My reputation as a wit and an intellect? Everybody else turn them down?

“We’d reached out, as the Bulletin’s comms team mentioned that you had previously covered the Clock in the past,” my contact said. A column on the magazine’s 75th anniversary. Journalists love anniversaries.

Trying to prepare, I considered my approach. My first thought was that climate change has kinda mooted the whole nuclear extinction specter — why worry about termites when your house is on fire? But the Bulletin people beat me to the punch, judging from this year’s announcement. The second paragraph begins: “In 2023, Earth experienced its hottest year on record, and massive floods, wildfires, and other climate-related disasters affected millions of people around the world.” They namecheck artificial intelligence too. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

So maybe I can explore the point informing my 75th anniversary column — the efficacy of warning people who choose to live in a fantasy world of their own construction, eager to demonize positive developments, like immigration, while shrugging off the most obvious disasters. A nation that won’t pass commonsense gun safety laws to reduce the chances of their preschoolers being slaughtered during naptime won’t lose much sleep over whether Iran gets the bomb.

We can talk about that at the discussion. As can you, if you show up: Tuesday, Feb. 6 from 5:30 to 7 p.m., at International House Assembly Hall, 1414 E. 59th St. Admission is free, but you have to register online, or call 773-753-2274.

See you there. Assuming, you know, the world doesn’t end first.

Source: Chicago Sun Times


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