BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, in President Trump’s first State of the Union, some thought they heard the ominous throb of a drumbeat to war with North Korea.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and to our allies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it’s not just the president’s rhetoric. Before the address, he mused to reporters that it was really tough to unify the people without some kind of major event, and he wished it was otherwise because, quote, “that major event is usually not a good thing.”
BOB GARFIELD: That same day, we learned that Victor Cha, director of Asian Affairs in the National Security Council of George W. Bush, was no longer in line to be the ambassador to South Korea because he could not support a limited strike on North Korea.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: That’s led to speculation that President Trump may, indeed, be considering such an attack.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s a move many foreign policy experts fear would lead to a conflict that would, in no way, be limited because North Korea might opt to go nuclear, which reminds me, it was only three weeks ago that citizens in Hawaii believed that we were already there.
AUTOMATED VOICE TV ALERT: The US Pacific Command has detected a missile threat to Hawaii. A missile may impact our land or sea within minutes. This is not a drill.
BOB GARFIELD: Except that it was. Hawaii’s residents demanded to know how the false alarm could have been sent and why it took officials more than 30 minutes to issue the all clear. Earlier this week, the FCC completed its investigation and supplied the answer.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The FCC says the panic started when an employee mistook a drill for a real warning about a missile threat and sent the warning.
BOB GARFIELD: All of this, the rhetoric, the situation room plotting, the uncanny mishap has us, here, thinking once again of doomsday, apocalypse, Armageddon, by nuclear folly or otherwise. And, apparently, we’re not the only ones.
On January 25th, the Doomsday Clock, so named because it represents humankind's ebb and flow towards and away from apocalypse, ticked 30 seconds closer to our own proverbial midnight. Now, it isn’t a Geiger counter or any kind of empirical measurement device. Since its 1947 introduction, it has merely been a vivid metaphor expressing the collective alarm of atomic scientists, whose job it is to develop this stuff.
With climate change and cyber warfare added into the mix of threats, they now judge civilization to be at 11:58 pm, the closest to the end of humanity we have ever reached.
LAWRENCE KRAUSS: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was created by scientists who had worked on the atomic bomb to convey the dangers of nuclear war to the public.
BOB GARFIELD: Lawrence Krauss is a theoretical physicist and the chair of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Board of Sponsors.
LAWRENCE KRAUSS: What the clock is, is a starting point, not an ending point. The clock is to raise interest and concern and then to encourage the public to discuss and potentially act. The Bulletin, throughout the rest of the year, provides in-depth articles, not opinion pieces but articles providing information by experts on, say, the Iran nuclear weapons agreement or the possibility of counting weapons from North Korea so that people can go and get real information to try and create sound public policy based on empirical reality, to point out that we do live in a scary world and there are real issues but, more importantly we can deal with those issues, there are solutions to those problems. We move the Doomsday Clock back. Whenever we introduce it, we talk about what can be done to move us further away from the brink.
BOB GARFIELD: You've mentioned moving it back. It has, in its history, nudged backwards every now and then. What were the circumstances?
LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, there were a variety of circumstances. It moved back the furthest at the end of the Cold War. We moved it back about a year after Obama was elected, based on the rhetoric that was occurring about the need to address nuclear weapons issues.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Fatalism is a deadly adversary, for if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.
LAWRENCE KRAUSS: But, of course, unfortunately, those weren’t met by action, whether it was his problem or Congress’ problem, and we, we moved it forward again. But we move it back when there are nuclear arms agreements.
BOB GARFIELD: I must say, it does feel great when it moves back. It’s like the Fall when you get that extra hour of sleep at the end of Daylight Savings Time.
LAWRENCE KRAUSS: [LAUGHS] It’s not this endless progression closer to zero. It, it doesn't have to be. But it will depend on the actions that people take and governments take.
The Nuclear Posture Review, which just came out a few weeks ago, indicates that this administration wants to create more nuclear weapons, different types of nuclear weapons, to somehow make, quote, unquote, “usable nuclear weapons.”
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The Trump administration wants more flexibility to respond with nuclear weapons to an attack. The US wants to develop a new low-yield tactical version of the Trident missile launched from submarines.
LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, that is an incredibly dangerous thing because, if anything has kept us safe it’s this notion of deterrence, that there's a threshold and nuclear weapons should not be used. But if you have small nuclear weapons that somehow seem useable, we’re on a slippery slope.
BOB GARFIELD: The last adjustment a week ago was 30 seconds. Is it a function of Trump, a water shortage in Cape Town? Is, is it the Patriots making the Super Bowl again?
What makes you do that?
LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, except for the last one. We spend a lot of time, the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, days or sometimes weeks, educating ourselves. And it is an issue. We knew, we were quite sober in this, that when we moved to 30 seconds, it would be the closest it's ever been to midnight since 1953 when the Soviet Union first exploded a thermonuclear bomb and, and the United States did and we had, suddenly devastating weapons of mass destruction.
But we moved it forward around the time when Trump was inaugurated because there had been incredibly dangerous statements made by candidate Trump about nuclear weapons, and so we said, look, actions speak louder than words but words mean something when this person is now president. The dangerous rhetoric has escalated. Plus, it’s been followed by policies that are counterproductive.
The fact is the United States pulled out of the Paris Accords and has installed someone as the head of the EPA who basically is determined to destroy the environment. Now, local, regional and state authorities, they are taking measures to try and stem climate change, at some level. So there are positives and negatives and we try and weigh them. There’s a divergence of opinion initially, and what amazes me is that we come to a consensus every year.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, you are, obviously, a scientist. Scientists bow at the altar of rationality, of empiricism, and yet, you’ve got this sort of advertising exception for the Doomsday Clock. You got to get people's attention through metaphor and just raw emotion. Do you concede that any part of that is, if not hypocritical, at least pretty damn ironic?
LAWRENCE KRAUSS: But we don't base it just on pure emotion. If we just put out the Clock and didn’t say anything, I think that would be more along the lines of what you're talking about. But the clock is just the beginning and it comes along with a detailed statement which allows you and I to talk about these issues. I’ve had in-depth discussions on radio and television about issues that I would never talk about otherwise that really need to be talked about.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, you started in 1947. The Clock was set at seven minutes to midnight.
LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: After 71 years, it has advanced to within two minutes of oblivion.
LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Is this not arguably evidence that the gimmick hasn't worked?
LAWRENCE KRAUSS: [LAUGHS] Well, look, if I thought that announcing the Doomsday Clock would immediately cause the world to change dramatically, I’d be rather naïve. There are many more countries that have nuclear weapons. But the Clock has moved in both directions. And what’s really important is maybe because of luck, maybe because of wisdom, the Clock has never hit midnight. Whether the Clock has played a role, and I think that the Clock and the movement by scientists in 1970 or so to get the United States to sign and ratify the Non-Proliferation Treaty and end the testing of nuclear weapons made the world a safer place. Look, all you can do is try and that you don't know what the world might have been if you haven't tried, but I think we should feel good that we’re still here and, more importantly, that we can rationally begin to discuss what we can do to make sure we stay here.
BOB GARFIELD: When you talk about midnight, have you ever given any thought to what one minute after midnight might look like?
LAWRENCE KRAUSS: [LAUGHS] Well, yes in, in my, in -- and personally I have. I’ve thought about what the world would be like without humans. I remember being in Antarctica recently and feeling like a world without humans and realizing that the world will go on and maybe, in the long run, nature might be better off.
But I, on the, on the other hand, think that the human experiment is so fascinating and amazing and the fact that you and I can have a conscious awareness of the world and, and not only can talk about it but can change it is so remarkable that we should probably work as hard as we can to keep the human experiment going as long as we can.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Lawrence, thank you very, very much.
LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Okay, thank you. And I hope you’ll be enthusiastic about seeing what the Clock is next year.
BOB GARFIELD: Lawrence Krauss is a theoretical physicist and chair of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Board of Sponsors.