Thursday, 14 January 2010

Doomsday update

Sometimes, when people ask what I do and I tell them that I'm a nuclear physicist, they look a bit amazed and ask me if I make weapons. It's not terribly surprising since, of all the many uses that nuclear physics has been used to, weapons are the one that has made most impact on culture. Though there are lots of other interesting (and more positive uses) of nuclear physics, weapons will probably always be the most iconic one, and by association, I will have to get used to being vaguely associated with them.

I sort of feel that I came to nuclear physics too late to really be associated with weapons, and I sometimes forget what a powerful influence the threat of nuclear war and nuclear weapons had on the generation before mine. I even spent my first postdoc in Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which was built for the atom bomb project, and visited the museums... but I've never really felt too associated with weapons, though I find the history fascinating. One of the almost romantic hangovers from the cold war era is the Doomsday clock. It was set up by a group of nuclear scientists worried about the problems of the weapons that they created. It perpetually points at a time close to midnight to represent the danger the world is under from threats so serious (originally and particularly nuclear war) that it could spell "doomsday". The clock still exists, and today it was moved back one minute to be 6 minutes from midnight, reflecting an improvement in the global situation, as judged by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I guess that's good news... and the announcement, which mentions climate change in conjunction with nuclear proliferation, suggests that the era of nuclear war as the primary (perceived) threat to civilisation is over, and we have a new enemy.