Why the Doomsday Clock Was Just Set Closest to Apocalypse in Over 50 Years

The first week of Donald Trump's Presidency features a flurry of activity and a flurry of warnings, like the resetting of the Doomsday Clock.

The first week of Trump’s Presidency was marked by an abundance of warnings amidst a flurry of executive orders that seemed designed to deliver on Trump’s campaign promises. The executive orders were often short on specifics and time will tell how many of the proposed policies are going to stick, but as has been the case so far - those hoping that somehow Trump will be tamed by the awesome power and responsibility of the office he now holds, are likely to be disappointed. In fact, the exact opposite is proving true - Trump is doubling down on even his most controversial policies. The wall is getting built, Muslims are getting banned, scientists are gagged.


While this may be pleasing to the most ardent of his supporters, the mood of the rest of the country swings between less optimistic caution and sheer abject depression. More than 3 million marchers filled American streets, the dystopian novel “1984” (written in 1949) becomes a best-selling book, and Nazi supporters are suddenly both more visible and getting punched in the face.

But no one has encapsulated the emotions of these early Trump days more dramatically than a group of scientists, who every year since 1947 determine whether to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock. This is a symbolic clock that is meant to indicate how close we are to nuclear war and global annihilation.  

The scientists announced that the Doomsday clock has been moved 30 seconds closer to midnight specifically because of Trump's election, going from 3 minutes away to 2.5. That’s the nearest the clock has been to midnight in 50+ years. We are talking the peak of the Cold War close. 

Why did the scientists, who include 15 Nobel laureates, move the clock’s hands? Short answer - Donald Trump

"Never before has the Bulletin decided to advance the clock largely because of the statements of a single person. But when that person is the new president of the United States, his words matter," wrote two members of the clock’s committee - retired U.S. Rear Admiral (and Professor) David Titley and theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss in an op-ed in New York Times.

Members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists unveil the 2017 time for the 'Doomsday Clock' January 26, 2017 in Washington, DC. From left to right are theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering and retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral David Titley. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The clock was initially created by the editors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, founded by many Manhattan Project scientists. They described the clock as representing “the urgency of the nuclear dangers”. The clock was initially set at 7 minutes to midnight and while its hands have been moved 22 times, its closest time to midnight so far was set in 1953, when U.S. and USSR tested hydrogen bombs. It was moved to 2 minutes to midnight. By comparison, in 1991, the hands were set to 17 minutes away, reflecting the perceived end of the Cold War in the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

In their explanation for moving the clock hands now, the scientists laid out the general instability in the world (only to be made worse by climate-change-denying politicians), continual testing by North Korea, and even the spread of fake news that can start arguments, like nuclear Pakistan’s defense minister saber-rattling to Israel over a fake story via Twitter. Other reasons include the volatile relationship between the U.S. and Russia and the “wavering public confidence in the democratic institutions required to deal with major world threats”. The reason climate change is given prominence in the group’s platform is because they consider it as a vital and growing threat that can also bring on the apocalypse. 

As far as Trump specifically, this is what the Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists said in a statement:

“This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a US presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons ‘and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.”

They also called his comments about expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal “ill-considered” and lamented Trump’s “troubling propensity to discount or outright reject expert advice related to international security.”

The group does offer a hopeful note that since Trump has been President only a few days, without his Cabinet confirmed (which the group finds full of “questionable” nominations), they did only move the clock by less than a full minute, an unusual practice for them.

The scientists made calls on the public to exert pressure on its leaders to pull back on the dangerous rhetoric and address the real issues in the world, stating that: “In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. “

The group includes esteemed Professors who teach at Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and other top international Universities in a variety of fields, focusing on nuclear science, nuclear nonproliferation, international politics, astrophysics, particle physics, public health, cyber policy, as well as climate and environmental studies.

Cover photo: Ivy Mike" atmospheric nuclear test - November 1952 - Flickr - The Official CTBTO. Photostream

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.