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Always look on the bright side of life: Doomsday clock moved back a minute

In the UK, the Home Office recently moved the country onto the second highest level of security alert, meaning the government believes the chance of terrorist attack is “highly likely and severe”, rather than “substantial”. The highest level will be “imminent”, at which point, we are presumably told to hide under our beds.

This is a pretty gloomy start to the New Year, but a slightly more optimistic prognosis has come from a considerably more respected source.

The Doomsday Clock has just been moved back a minute, to six minutes to midnight. It is based at the University of Chicago and has been a barometer of global meltdown, particularly nuclear danger, for the past 63 years.

Midnight is cheerfully intended to represent the end of all civilization, due to complete nuclear war. In 1947, it was set at seven minutes to midnight and is meant to gauge how close humankind is to Armageddon.

The big hand has usually stayed within the top left quartile, occasionally inching closer to midnight, when the threat grows and receding slightly as it fades.

The closest it has been, was two minutes to midnight in 1953, the furthest 17, in 1991. Let us hope its caretakers never set it for midnight; presumably it would be the last thing they’d do. They are the board of directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, founded in 1945. Its contributors have included Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Al Gore and Arthur C Clarke.

It has been adjusted 18 times in total, before this, most recently in 2007, when it was moved to five minutes to midnight, when climate change was added to nuclear annihilation as the greatest threats to humanity.

This year’s move back was because of “a more hopeful state of world affairs” and “a growing political will to tackle the terror of nuclear weapons and runaway climate change”.

Lawrence Krauss, co-chair of the BAS board, warned there was much to be done and ominously said: “We are mindful of the fact the clock is ticking.”

At least the BAS give reasons for their decisions, whereas the British government has raised a threat level, that is hypothetical, from the abstract “substantial”, to the equally abstract “highly likely”. No reasons have been given.

Where is the danger coming from and what are we meant to do? This step-change does not help us, it just makes us fret more and the maniacs, whoever they are, seem more powerful.

Whatever your yardstick for impending doom, perhaps your mantra should just be: “Don’t panic and carry on”.

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