Friday, December 29, 2006

The Tick-Tock of the Doomsday Clock, part 2

When I was four years old, I asked my mother if the atomic bomb would fall on us. At the time we lived with my grandmother on a small farm in Alabama, and Mom answered, "It won't happen here because we're out in the country." But a year later we moved to Columbus, Georgia, which was adjacent to Ft. Benning, the largest infantry training center in the free world and definitely a target if the Soviet Union ever lobbed nuclear weapons at the United States!

Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock has registered a graphic guess at the risk of nuclear war. The minute hand of the clock flicks back and forth in response to world events. It stood at three minutes to midnight in 1984 when I happened onto a replica of the clock at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. The Bulletin was worried about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Peace activists in Berkeley were worried too, and they staged protest actions at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons were being designed. The Doomsday Clock backed up to 11:43 when the Cold War ended. It presently shows 11:53, and the Bulletin's Board of Directors is keeping a wary eye on North Korea.

Cosmologist Martin Rees discusses the Doomsday Clock in his book Our Final Hour (Basic Books, 2003.) Rees believes we now have Doomsday Clocks, plural. Terrorists or rogue states might explode a nuclear weapon somewhere, but "bioterror and bioerror" top Rees' extensive inventory of plausible dooms.

For a question about whether to fear the future, "It won't happen here because we're out in the country" felt like the wrong answer when I was four. Now I can count the ways it's wrong. First, some doomsday scenarios imperil the whole Earth. Second, there can be local midnights: the world goes on, but with a mushroom cloud or a toxic flood where a city used to be. Given Doomsday Clocks, plural, who can say where is safe? Third, finding yourself in a safe place does nothing to alleviate the anxiety of living in a world where Doomsday can happen to someone, somewhere. And fourth: asking whether to fear the future or not is too blunt a way to approach it. The future – which is already here: the 21st Century – is more nuanced than that. Technological terror and scientific wonder are mixed and welded together at every scale from lumps down to the fine grains – like breccia, which is rock that consists of sharp fragments cemented together.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is still in the business of designing nuclear weapons. LLNL also collaborates with NASA to peer into the dawn of creation with state-of-the-art instruments analyzing extraterrestrial material samples. I hear that the LLNL campus looks drably institutional, except for flocks of yellow free-range bicycles. There are enough bikes for any employee to grab one and ride to any other building as desired. If a bike needs repair, it gets parked belly-up as a signal to the maintenance department. Inventing new hells on Earth, doing dawn-of-creation science, and having free-range yellow bicycles. A man-made breccia with bright yellow flecks.

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