If you are of a certain age you may have heard this joke:
Two astronauts are on a mission, and the first astronaut has just finished off a call from Mission Control, a conversation that contains some bad news that he needs to pass on to his partner.
“I don’t know how to tell you, but I have some bad news,” says the first astronaut. “Your cat is dead”
The astronaut is stunned by the news and blames his fellow astronauts.
“You just don’t blurt that out,” he complains. “What you’re doing is telling some sort of story that will help ease the shock. You say, ‘Your cat got out of the house and climbed on the roof.’ Then you say, “He fell, but you took him to the vet. The vet worked on him, but your cat was too badly injured, so they knocked him down. He died peacefully.”
“So bring someone these kinds of messages.”
The cockpit went silent. A few minutes later, the second astronaut turned to his partner. “Oh, by the way, didn’t you say you had two bad news for me? What’s the second?”
The first astronaut pauses as if trying to find the right words before speaking:
“Your mother was on the roof.”
I am reminded of that old joke when I share some alarming news with you: Our cosmic cat is on the roof.
This week, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced that the doomsday clock would be set to 100 seconds until midnight, the closest to the fateful hour since its inception in 1947.
On the plus side, there can be some good news. Maybe it’s set to Eastern time, which would give us an hour here.
I probably shouldn’t be so careless on this subject as the doomsday clock is a product of some of the world’s greatest scientists, who currently have 17 Nobel Prize winners among its members.
The watch was designed to communicate how close the world was to nuclear annihilation following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings that ended World War II but started the Cold War.
It’s a product of a less cynical era when people viewed the prospect of nuclear war as an existential threat, a time when schoolchildren were told to hide under their desks in the event of a nuclear strike.
In today’s world, it seems like a silly idea that a desk should provide protection from a nuclear attack. But during that time, people have followed such warnings. With the coronavirus death toll in the US over 430,000, we could benefit from being less skeptical and more compliant.
So the idea of a doomsday clock seems a bit out of date and alarming, but the science behind the doomsday clock shouldn’t be discarded.
Today, the watch takes into account not only the specter of nuclear war, but other potential disasters of epic proportions, including the coronavirus, which has now killed more than 2 million people worldwide, and climate change, which, according to scientists, could prove to be more balanced Threat to human existence as nuclear war or pandemic.
Put the nuclear war, pandemic, and climate change threats together and it’s easy to see why scientists say we’re closer to midnight than ever.
The good news is that there is hope that we can turn back the clock – let’s call it Human Savings Time – after the US re-accedes to the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization and the person who occupies the White House is no longer an ill-informed, impulsive narcissist.
The doomsday clock is set twice a year, so the prospects of annihilation by July may not be that bad.
But from today?
Well the cat is on the roof.