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Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

History Page Type:
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Doomsday Clock

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a journal and nonprofit organization that analyzes nuclear policy and a range of other scientific and security challenges. The Bulletin publishes a bimonthly magazine and maintains a website with an extensive array of reports and analytical articles. It was founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists at the University of Chicago and has had a vocal role in efforts to limit nuclear weapons ever since. The Bulletin received the National Magazine Award for General Excellence in 2007, as well as many other accolades, for its work. 


In June 1945, a group of scientists at the University of Chicago, headed by James Franck, met to study the use of the atomic bomb. The committee submitted the Franck Report, which cautioned against use of atomic weapons, to Secretary of War Henry Stimson on June 11, 1945. The bulk of this report was written by a physicist named Eugene Rabinowitch. After the war there was a continued sense among the Manhattan Project scientists in Chicago that they “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work.”

In September, Rabinowitch, John Simpson Jr., and other Manhattan Project scientists such as Hyman Goldsmith established the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago to discuss nuclear issues (the name was shortened to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists after its audience became more international). Simpson was the Bulletin’s first chairman and Rabinowitch was its editor until his death in 1973.

In October 1945, Rabinowitch and Simpson wrote an article for Life magazine, which claimed that scientists were morally obligated to warn the public and policy makers about the dangers of nuclear weapons. The Bulletin published its first magazine in December 1945. Since then, the Bulletin has been at the forefront of nuclear policy analysis.


Doomsday Clock

The Bulletin is perhaps best known for the “Doomsday Clock” on the magazine’s front cover. In 1947, the editors of the Bulletin wanted to broaden its audience. The editors thought of designing a cover that would emulate flashy, popular magazines such as Life. However, the Bulletin had a limited budget. Physicist Alexander Langsdorf’s wife, Martyl, happened to be an artist, and she agreed to design a cover without pay. 

Martyl Langsdorf, who had attended the Bulletin’s meetings, observed the sense of urgency among the scientists. To express this, she created a design of a clock set seven minutes to midnight. Ever since, the Bulletin has moved the clock back and forth to express changes in global threat levels. For example, the clock was set to two minutes until midnight in 1953 after the United States and the Soviet Union both tested thermonuclear weapons. This was the closest the Doomsday Clock had been to midnight, until the clock was again set to two minutes to midnight in 2018.

Current Work

The Bulletin publishes a bimonthly feature, called the “Nuclear Notebook”, which tracks the number of nuclear weapons held by each of the nine states currently in possession of nuclear weapons. It is written by Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, a member of the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s Board of Directors.

The Bulletin also publishes a monthly discussion between nuclear policy experts called the “Development and Disarmament Roundtable.” Every month, three experts analyze and debate a question related to nuclear weapons. For example, the February 2017 roundtable discussed whether a new treaty banning nuclear weapons can speed up their abolition. The Bulletin publishes the roundtables in English, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish. 

After the Bulletin’s founding, it quickly expanded to cover science and security issues beyond nuclear weapons. In the 1950s, the Bulletin began writing about the drastic effects climate change would have on global security if left unchecked. Since then, it has continued to play a leading role in promoting climate change policy in a skeptical political climate.

The Bulletin also writes extensively on biosecurity and has analyzed other issues such as artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.

You can watch the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s interview with the Bulletin’s Executive Director and Publisher, Rachel Bronson, here.



Related Video:
Kennette Benedict is Senior Advisor to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the Bulletin’s former Executive Director and Publisher. In this interview, she discusses the history of the Bulletin. She recalls the scientists and staff involved with the Bulletin over the years, and describes the role the magazine has played in providing scientists with a platform to inform the debate on nuclear policy and other global security issues.