If you’re of a certain age, you may have heard this joke:
Two astronauts are on a mission, and the first astronaut has just finished a call from Mission Control, a conversation that contains some bad news he must relay to his partner.
“I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’ve got a couple of pieces of bad news,” the first astronaut says. “Your cat is dead,”
The astronaut is stunned by the news and chides his fellow astronaut.
“You just don’t just blurt out something like that,” he complains. “What you do is kind of tell a story that helps take the shock out of it. You say, ‘Your cat got out of the house and climbed up on the roof,’ Then, you say, ‘He fell, but they took him to the vet. The vet worked on him, but your cat was too badly injured, so they put him down. He died peacefully.’
“That’s how you break that kind of news to somebody.”
The cockpit fell quiet. A few minutes later, the second astronaut turned to his partner. “Oh, by the way, didn’t you say you have two pieces of bad news for me? What’s the second?”
The first astronaut pauses, as if trying to find the proper words, before speaking:
“Your mom was on the roof.”
I am reminded of this old joke as I share with you some alarming news: Our cosmic cat is on the roof.
This week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that the Doomsday Clock has been set at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has been to the fateful hour since its creation in 1947.
On the bright side, there may be some good news. Maybe it’s set on Eastern time, which would give us another hour around here.
I probably should not be so cavalier about this subject, since the Doomsday Clock is a product of some of the world’s greatest scientists, whose current membership includes 17 Nobel Prize winners.
The clock was devised as a way to communicate just how close the world was to nuclear annihilation in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ended World War II, but began the Cold War.
It is a product of a less cynical era, when people considered 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 jaded world, it seems like a silly idea that a desk would provide protection from a nuclear attack. But in that era, people complied with such warnings. As the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus moves past 430,000 people, we could benefit from being less skeptical and more compliant.
So the idea of a Doomsday Clock seems a bit outdated and alarmist, but the science behind the Doomsday Clock should not be dismissed.
Today, the clock takes into account not only the specter of nuclear war, but other potential catastrophes of epic proportions, including the coronavirus, which has now killed more than 2 million people worldwide and climate change, something scientist say may prove to be an even greater threat to human existence than nuclear war or the pandemic.
Put together the threats of nuclear war, the pandemic and climate change and it’s easy to understand why scientists say we are closer to midnight than ever before.
The good news is that there is some hope that we can set the clock back — Call it Human Savings Time — now that the U.S. has rejoined the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization and the person occupying the White House is no longer an ill-informed, impulsive narcissist.
The Doomsday Clock is set twice a year, so by July, perhaps the prospects of annihilation won’t seem quite so bad.
But as of today?
Well, the cat is on the roof.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.