X Close

It’s time for the doom-mongers to clock off Why do scientists think the world is closer than ever to destroying itself?

Operation Ivy, the first test of a hydrogen bomb, at Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Credit: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty

Operation Ivy, the first test of a hydrogen bomb, at Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Credit: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty

January 27, 2020   5 mins

In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, we came terrifyingly close to ending the human race. Closer, in fact, that anyone knew at the time.

The most dangerous moment only became public knowledge many years later. Toby Ord’s The Precipice, about existential risks, goes into it in disconcerting detail.

At the time of the crisis, a flotilla of four Soviet submarines was patrolling the waters around Cuba. One of them, B-59, was detected by a US Navy surface fleet, which started dropping warning-shot depth charges into the water, in an attempt to force it to surface.

B-59’s batteries were low. Its air conditioning system had failed. The internal temperatures had reached something like 50°C and the carbon dioxide levels in its atmosphere were near-poisonous; crew members were frequently falling unconscious. The ship was too deep to hear radio traffic, and had been hiding for days, so did not know if war had already broken out. The explosions from the depth charges were like someone hammering on the hull.

And, crucially, B-59 – and all three other vessels in its flotilla – carried a secret weapon: a torpedo with an atomic warhead, comparable to that of the Hiroshima bomb.

The captain of the ship, frantic and stressed, wanted to use that weapon on the fleet harassing them. He needed his political officer’s consent — and he got it. That would have been enough, on any of the other three vessels, to authorise launch. But “by purest luck”, as Ord puts it, B-59 also carried the flotilla’s commander, Captain Vasili Arkhipov. Arkhipov persuaded his brother officers to bring the submarine to the surface instead.

We don’t know what would have happened if Arkhipov had been on B-4 or B-36 instead of B-59 that day. Maybe they would not have launched their nuclear weapon; maybe it would not have led to nuclear war. But it very easily could have. Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defence, later said that a nuclear attack on US forces would have led to a full nuclear exchange.

Kennedy afterwards said that the Cuban missile crisis, at its peak, had had “somewhere between one out of three, and even” odds of leading to all-out war. He said that without knowing about Arkhipov’s role. Perhaps he exaggerated anyway, but it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that we came within a bad dice-roll, perhaps even a coin-flip, of utter catastrophe.

It is against that backdrop that I would like to talk about the Doomsday Clock.

Last week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight. The clock has been maintained since 1947, when several nuclear scientists and other thinkers, including several who had worked on the Manhattan Project itself, had the sudden realisation, in the wake of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that for the first time humanity held in its hands the power to destroy itself. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Bertrand Russell, and Einstein himself were among the signatories. The clock is a metaphorical representation of how close the world is to destroying itself through technological progress. When it was unveiled its hands were set to seven minutes to midnight.

It has, in the 72 years since its creation, never been closer than two minutes to midnight – until last week, 22 January 2020. The Bulletin’s scientists say that the twin threats of global instability and climate change are behind its decision.

Now. It would be unfair to say that the Bulletin’s scientists should have moved the hands of the clock closer when Vasili Arkhipov was arguing against starting a war. They couldn’t have, because they didn’t know. And in fact the whole of the Cuban missile crisis was initiated and resolved within a few days, too quick for the clock to respond. The Bulletin only adjusts its hands twice a year.

But Arkhipov’s intervention was just one of several such flashpoints during the Cold War. A perhaps more famous one came two decades later, in September 1983, when Lt Col Stanislav Petrov saw what looked like five US missiles approaching Russia on his early warning radar screen. Reasoning that a US strike would feature thousands of rockets, not five, he decided it was a false alarm, and didn’t tell his superiors. If he had, it may well have caused a war.

There are several others. US radar equipment in Greenland mistook a moonrise for a nuclear explosion; luckily Kruschev was in New York, so NORAD reasoned that he probably wouldn’t bomb himself. A B-52 crashed with two bombs on board; one came close to detonating. The failure of a relay station in Colorado caused Strategic Air Command to lose contact with NORAD; SAC got the entire nuclear bomber force ready for takeoff before they realised the error.

The whole of the Cold War is a story of us rolling the dice, time after time, and it never quite coming up snake-eyes. The hair-trigger mechanisms for deployment and the sheer power of the nuclear arsenals – plus the air of constant paranoia – meant that a terrifyingly small number of technical problems or human errors could have caused an accidental nuclear war and, potentially, given what we know about nuclear winter, the end of humanity.

Not that we’re safe now. The US still has hundreds of nuclear weapons. So do the former Soviet states, in decaying institutions. North Korea has developed the bomb and it seems Iran is trying to. But there aren’t two huge and belligerent nations squaring up, each with their fingers on the trigger of enough weapons to devastate most of the major population centres of the globe. If a nuclear war were to start with North Korea, it would be a disaster of unprecedented proportions; tens of millions would die. But if it had started in 1962 or 1983, it would have been a death toll of billions, and it’s not clear that anyone would have survived at all.

And, of course, climate change has the potential to — is likely to, in fact — cause enormous hardship for billions. But the IPCC’s central estimates are of devastating economic and environmental impacts and millions of deaths, not extinction-level incidents. They could be wrong; the impacts of six degrees of warming or more are largely unknown. But six degrees of warming is well outside what is expected, even if the world carries on emitting greenhouse gases at current rates.

We always think we live in the most deadly time. Lots of Americans look back to the 1950s as a golden age of safety and security – but as Dan Gardner, the author of Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, points out, at the time they were petrified (understandably!) of the new atomic weapons, and looked back nostalgically to the safety and security of the 1920s. “Hindsight bias” is the tendency we have to assume that whatever happened was inevitable and whatever didn’t happen could never have happened, so we think all the threats that we survived — and the Cold War had many of them — were never threats at all.

It is, though, absolutely ridiculous that the Doomsday Clock considers the very real problems of modern society — Trump being mad, Putin being machiavellian, the climate getting dangerously warm — as in any way as great an imminent and deadly threat as, say, the moment in 1952 when the USA and USSR tested their first thermonuclear devices within a few months of each other. And, yet, the Bulletin put that at just two minutes to midnight. This is not scientific risk assessment: this is PR.

You could argue that because it’s just PR, it doesn’t matter. It raises awareness of nuclear annihilation and climate change so that’s a good thing, right? But it does matter. The Bulletin’s announcement got (unearned, in my view) global media attention. It sounds serious and scientific – the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists must be using some objective measure of Global Danger! – and it scares people.

Hindsight bias being what it is, we don’t need any extra help to believe that we live in the most dangerous time ever. And people are already scared, of crime and violence and climate change and war and coronaviruses; I think it is actually OK for people to be less scared, and to remember that very recently, the world was a lot scarier.

If you doubt that, ask yourself if you would choose to swap positions, right now, with Vasili Arkhipov – in the dark, hot confines of a submarine hundreds of feet below the surface of the Caribbean sea, with American explosives clanging against the thin hull, wondering whether the world is already ending.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments