Unwinding Doomsday’s Clock

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists earlier this year voted to keep the hands of the Doomsday Clock that measures humanity’s likelihood of self-destructing closer to midnight than ever. One of those scientists is now leading a new generation of teachers fighting for our survival by changing the way we think about our place in space and time.

It’s the summer of 1969, but it may as well be today. A newly-formed womens’ rights group known as the Redstockings storms the New York State legislature to protest its handling of abortion laws. Armed members of the Black Panther Party take to the streets across America, protecting black citizens from police brutality. Two nuclear powers, China and the Soviet Union, battle over a disputed border in Manchuria. 

Hovering high above, three Apollo 11 astronauts are cruising at 2,000 miles per hour towards the moon. This first sojourn of humans to the chalky, white orb is simultaneously a rallying cry for the great things the species is capable of doing, and a reminder of America’s ability to launch nuclear weapons anywhere in the world. The Doomsday Clock, created by Albert Einstein and others who helped invent the nuclear bomb, is set to 10 minutes till midnight. If the clock strikes 12, it’s unlikely anyone will know, as the world will have blinked out of existence in a nuclear flash. 

As the spindly-legged Eagle moon-lander begins its 70-mile descent to the moon’s surface, a restless 31-year old nuclear physicist named Robert Socolow is just one of 500 million humans glued to their television sets. Shortly before sunset, in his young family’s ranch-style rental home near Stanford’s Linear Accelerator, Socolow’s wife Elizabeth brings their sleeping son David to the living room and places him in a blue crib they inherited from her parents. As astronaut Neil Armstrong takes his first step on the powdery surface, Socolow gently lifts the boy from the crib and sets him on his lap.

“We wanted him to see the moon landing,” says Elizabeth, now 81, recalling the moment from her home in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, 50-years later. “I could see him telling his own children he had seen the landing,” Rob chimes in from the back patio of his four-acre estate near Princeton. “That his dad had put him on his lap, facing the television as it was happening.”

Over the course of the next several years, the power of that black and white moment grew, impacting policy decisions and inspiring a new generation of academics. So, when the last crew to travel to the moon on Apollo 17 snapped a full-color high-resolution photo of the Earth, now known as The Blue Marble, the image sent shockwaves around the world. The tiny planet floating alone in a vast sea of blackness became an emblem that shifted the eons-old, tribal fight to survive to a planetary scale, says Socolow, now 83 and a professor emeritus at Princeton. “I single out the images of the Earth from space as having a kind of shock effect on our species. Virtually every university asked itself how it would respond to what was clearly some new agenda?” 

As governments and businesses now prepare to take the first humans to other planets, Socolow’s answer to that question is only getting more refined. After co-founding Princeton’s environmental science program in 1971, he joined the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board and served on the committee that earlier this year voted to keep the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it’s ever been. Instead of just waiting and hoping things would improve, he’s taking matters into his own hands, teaching a small class he calls Destiny Studies, which moves beyond the sense of patriotism taught by institutions around the world to what he calls Planetary Identity, the sense that the bonds we’ve long experienced from coming from the same place could be extended far beyond tribal and national borders.

It turns out, he’s not alone. Countless other scientists and teachers around the world have been transformed by seeing the Earth as it truly was, floating and alone. Many of them are now working to better understand exactly why the change in perspective occurs, and figure out if maybe it can be taught on the grandest scale. If they’re successful, these scientists and teachers could change not just how we deal with nuclear weapons, global pandemics, and other emerging threats, but help build a new kind of identity—one embraced by future generations of astronauts on their way to Mars and beyond.

“We don’t know that there’s life anywhere else, and until such time as we do, we ought to consider ourselves to be something extraordinary in the universe, who are figuring out who we are,” says Socolow. “Planetary identity supplements the many other identities we have. We don’t think of our religion as detracting from our nationalism, or our affinity with a ball team from our cultural identity—they’re all parts of our identity that supplement and round out a personality. We have been delinquent in not bringing planetary thinking into science education from kindergarten on up.”

Planetary Identity

Born on December 27, 1937, Socolow describes his childhood, growing up in a liberal Jewish New York neighborhood, as “cosmopolitan,” from the Greek for citizen of the cosmos. When he was eight, he enrolled at the progressive Walden School in New York, where instead of singing the Star Spangled Banner, the students sang the unofficial United Nations anthem. After a year in France studying with the non-profit “Experiment on International Living,” Socolow enrolled at Harvard University and studied theoretical high-energy physics under Kenneth Bainbridge, the former director of the Manhattan Project’s Trinity nuclear test.

While any serious scientist at the time was expected to advance rapidly from one course to another, as a sophomore, Socolow shocked his professors when he opted to study poetry under Pulitzer Prize winner Archibald MacLeish, whose poem Conquistador opened his eyes to the destruction that well-meaning colonists wrought in an attempt to spread their culture. “I’ve always been someone who said science is not enough,” says Socolow. “But it’s a part of it.” 

In 1959, his career in physics was again delayed. Instead of going straight into the PhD program, Socolow accepted Harvard’s Frederick Sheldon travel fellowship and spent the potentially pivotal year of his career on the road. Instead of taking the “grand tour” of Europe, as past winners of the fellowship typically did, he cycled through Cambodia, took a train to Vietnam, a bus to India and a flight to East Africa. “It became clear to me that I was interested in the whole world, global issues, the way cultures connected, and how science fit into all of that,” he says. “I came back a global citizen.”

3 MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT | In 1960, after seven years set at two-minutes to midnight at the height of the Cold War, the Doomsday Clock was set back one minute, in part thanks to the Antarctic Treaty, which saw twelve nations agree not to militarize the southern continent.

Socolow’s travels abroad further spun him away from physics in the spring of 1969, when 44,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese had already been killed in the Vietnam War. More than a black and white story on television, color images of actual places he’d been and people he met swirled around his head. “I was feeling in my bones from that whole year of travel, that we were on the wrong side,” he says.

After spending much of the summer commuting back and forth between the Stanford Linear Accelerator and protests on the other side of the San Francisco Bay, at the University of Berkeley, the young Socolow helped organize a campus-wide event critiquing scientists’ complicity in the war. “The question I was asking at the time was, ‘If I’m going to leave pure science for something with social context, what’s that going to look like?’” says Socolow. “And I didn’t have a good answer.”  

That all changed on July 21st, 1969, the morning after he set his son on his lap to watch the moon landing. He awoke to find the words of his college professor, Archibald MacLeish, documenting the epiphany he and the rest of the world had started to experience, seeing the Earth in the sky above, published on the front page of the New York Times:

…We stand here in the dusk, the cold, the silence…

and here, as at the first of time, we lift our heads.

Over us, more beautiful than the moon, a

moon, a wonder to us, unattainable,

a longing past the reach of longing,

a light beyond our light, our lives–perhaps

a meaning to us…

He had found his answer. That summer, instead of returning to his work at the Linear Accelerator, he flew to Florida, and trying to better understand how plans for an airport would impact the native wildlife, canoed deep into a labyrinth of wetlands studying long-legged limpkins, pink flamingos, and reptilian-looking spoonbills. “The Earth was the system I was interested in,” says Socolow. “It’s nowhere near as universal as the universe. It is cascading down, not up, but down from the physics, which was about the neutron and the proton everywhere, Earth was a very special case. It was not as romantic as studying the universe. But it had ethical content, it was about what we were doing here on Earth, as a species.”

10 MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT | Following the ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by the U.S. Senate, the Doomsday Clock was moved back the previous year from seven-minutes to midnight.

The Overview Effect

After the moon landing—and the flood of images that came with it—it became clear that Socolow was not the only one whose perspective was changing. Five months later, U.S. President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act, helping prevent the destruction of land used by threatened animals. The following April, Republican Senator Gaylor Nelson hosted the first Earth Day to draw attention to the impact humans were having on the planet. 

Perhaps no one experienced the perspective of science “cascading down” more than the astronauts spiraling the earth. While Socolow’s perspective—and much the rest of the so-called terranauts—evolved after seeing images on a screen, the astronauts experienced this new vantage point in high-definition, full-color, zero-gravity reality. In his 1974 book Carrying the Fire, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins described the experience of seeing the Earth from space as “invaluable to getting people together to work out joint solutions, by causing them to realize that the planet we share unites us in a way far more basic and far more important than differences in skin color or religion.” 

In many ways, this paradigm shift culminated on February 14, 1990, just as Voyager 1 approached the edge of our solar system. At the recommendation of Pulitzer Prize-winning astronomer Carl Sagan, the NASA engineers on Earth turned around the spaceship’s camera and snapped a photo of our home from nearly four billion miles away. Any further, and the few blueish pixels that represented the Earth would have vanished completely. “A pale blue dot,” as Sagan described what he saw in his 1994 book on the experience. “The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life,” he wrote. “Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”

By 2014, this sense of epiphany—that the planet is fundamentally borderless and alone—had touched so many lives that Harvard professor Frank White coined the phrase “Overview Effect” to describe it. “Some common aspects of [the Overview Effect] are a feeling of awe for the planet,” he writes in his book named after the effect. “A profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.” 

Retired U.S. Army colonel, Jeffrey Williams, 63, says that during his record-setting 534 days on the International Space Station he was at first struck by an affinity with his present and past homes. Then, after countless orbits around the earth, the amateur photographer slowly started to identify with places he’d seen on previous cycles of the same trip, until at last his identity itself began to scatter. Author of the 2010 book The Work of His Hands: A View of God’s Creation from Space, Williams says he now feels a sense of duty to use the photographs he took as a tool to bring people “vicariously” to the perspective. “When we have tensions at the highest levels that are very public, it’s very important to appreciate and understand and foster and empower the positive engagements that we have,” he says. “Dealing with people is the same everywhere in the world, often in contrast to the way administrations publicly deal with each other.”

Awe and Wonder

In early 2011, Williams had a unique opportunity to fulfill his mission to help others vicariously see through his eyes. An international team of scientists, philosophers and artists approached him as part of their preparation for a number of experiments being developed at the University of Central Florida, just a 30-minute drive from The Kennedy Space Center, where eleven years earlier he launched on his first trip to space. Designed by cognitive scientist Shaun Gallagher, the experiments would test if the Overview Effect that had changed Socolow and others’ perspectives could be taught in a lab.


6 MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT | In part as a result of U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev agreeing to nuclear arms negotiations, the Doomsday Clock was set back one minute.

With a grant from the John Templeton Foundation and help from virtual reality professor at Humboldt University, Jörg Trempler, the first experiment simulated a work desk on the International Space station. Standing in a room outside the Virtual Space Lab, research assistant and PhD candidate Patricia Bockelman addressed 38 psychology students who volunteered for a battery of tests and a new kind of flight simulation. “Welcome to your pre-flight preparation,” she said. “Let’s begin the first phase by having you follow me to the cockpit where we will begin your astronaut qualification examination.” 

As part of “suiting up” for the virtual space trip, the students answered a battery of questions about whether they were right-handed, color-blind, or believed in god. Alpha, theta, and beta waves emitted from the students’ brains during the test were measured by nine electrodes affixed to a cap on the student’s head with a tenth electrode measuring their heartbeat. Bockelman then drew back a black curtain revealing two massive 120 degree screens behind portholes riveted to the wall.

One by one, the students entered a chamber described in the 2015 book on the experiments, A Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder, as a “virtual Plato’s cave.” Mimicking the restricted movement of an actual space flight, they were strapped into a chair. Lights in the room dimmed and the sounds of rockets blared through speakers so loud the room shook. “We tried to put them in a frame of mind where they were expecting to be launched into space,” says Gallagher, now 72, and a professor at the University of Memphis. As the sounds of the rockets dimmed, a pale blue image depicting a crescent-shaped sliver of the earth slowly rotated into view. 

For 24 minutes the subjects were silently shown images of the earth, the International Space Station and finally the stars of deep space. A second experiment depicted a virtual launch from the iconic University of Central Florida campus, whose concentric paths around the student union emulate the Kennedy Center launch site. Instead of a rapidly pounding heartbeat, as the scientists expected, the subjects appeared to enter a meditative state with an ever-slowing pulse. Sifting through hours of interviews with the test subjects, the researchers identified 42 instances of what they describe as a change in moral perspective, and 22 instances each of contentment, inquisitiveness, and insignificance compared to the vastness of space. Far from a jarring experience, the perspective seemed to calm them. 39 subjects in the second experiment experienced a clear sense of awe and wonder.

One 19-year-old female psychology student, identified in the book only as Participant 44, put it this way: “You’re [not just] looking at pictures and saying, ‘Oh, this is China,’ and, ‘Oh, this is what the sun looks like.’ Instead you see all of it, all at once and you think, oh, this is what everything looks like put together.” At at least this basic level, the Overview Effect was indeed teachable.

One of the Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder’s co-authors, philosopher Bruce Janz, sees a larger impact of the Overview Effect than just the breaking down of national borders. The co-director of the University of Central Florida’s Center for Humanities and Digital Research, Janz studies the impact of modern technology on human consciousness. A dual citizen, born in Canada and now living in the United States, Janz specializes in how concepts of place are influenced by the spaces in which they’re set—in the Awe and Wonder experiments, how the concept of one’s self is influenced by where we are on Earth, and how our concepts of the Earth are influenced by whether or not we see the planet firmly planted beneath our feet or hovering in empty space. 

Janz suggests that the experience of physical borders being broken down since technology opened up travel and communication, is echoed in the breaking down of other borders that define gender, sexuality, food, language, and more. He says the resulting fear, experienced by many of those forced to see themselves as inherently connected to people they disagree with, could be in part to blame for the recent reaction against globalization: the building of walls on previously open borders, the dissolution of international unions, and a fear of anything seen as homogenizing culture.

To combat this fear, a vital component of Socolow’s Planetary Identity, Janz proposes a new understanding of globalization, which he calls “glocalization.” Janz’s own paradigm shift presents hospitality as a way to interact with the ever-increasing number of strangers we confront, without sacrificing one’s national, tribal and other identities. “There is a certain approach to hospitality, which is both about the person you’re meeting and about the examination of yourself in that context,” he says. “In the world of glocalization, or borderlessness, we have the resources within us, if only we’re willing to let go of what we think our certainties are, and actually encounter something new.” 

Building on what he learned from the experiments, in September Janz applied for a grant from the Department of Defense’s Minerva Research Initiative on social science to better understand the impact of remoteness on astronauts traveling to Mars and beyond. “No human has ever been out of sight of either the Earth or the moon,” he says. “And of course, we need different tools to think about living as humans when we are out of that range.”

Destiny Studies

For much of the last nine years Socolow has been helping create those tools by developing more than just a class on Planetary Identity, but an entirely new field, which he calls Destiny Studies. After first describing the field in February 2012 during a keynote address to the Vanderbilt Law Review, he codified its mission in an article for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. “The goal,” he wrote, “should be to foster science and technology, to intensify planetary consciousness, to strengthen those international institutions that reinforce the reality that all countries are in one boat, to resist over managing the planet, and to learn to think coherently about future time.”

In a baton-passing ceremony of sorts, the professor emeritus at Princeton’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering celebrated his retirement in April 2019 by inviting speakers from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, Caltech, Georgetown, the University of São Paulo, U.C. Berkeley, Harvard and elsewhere to participate in a daylong event called “Destiny Studies for a Small Planet.” Gathering at Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment, the group of leaders addressed an audience of about 200 people to describe what Destiny Studies means through diverse lenses including geophysics, finance, energy and law. 

Judge Edith Brown Weiss, 79, from the International Monetary Fund’s Administrative Tribunal, and a professor at Georgetown Law, spoke about her work helping the Hague establish a theoretical framework that views resources as part of a planetary trust, creating what she calls intergenerational equity. “Those of us living today have to pass the Earth and our natural and cultural resources to future generations in at least as good condition as we received them, so that they can meet their own needs,” she says. 

100 SECONDS TO MIDNIGHT | In 2020, following the end to a number of arms treaties and government unwillingness to act on climate change, the Doomsday Clock is set closer to midnight than ever, a position reaffirmed the following year.

As Socolow laid the formal foundation for Destiny Studies in Princeton, similar endeavors were spontaneously emerging around the world. In 2010, 40 schools and 800 teachers from Austria, Benin, Brazil, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic created the Global Curriculum Project, aimed at helping educators from any discipline adopt their existing curricula to connect the “micro-realities” at school, at home and in cities to the “macro-reality” of the planet. “It is vital to raise new generations with a global/planetary conscience in order to assure sustainability of life on Earth,” wrote professors Madza Ednir and Débora Maria Macedo from Brazilan non-profit Centro de Criação de Imagem Popular in a paper published by the Journal of Field Actions.

Among a number efforts that have sprung up over the years to teach planetary identity and related concepts is the Ecole Urbaine de Lyon’s School of Anthropocene, which for the past three years has been developing the Anthropocene Manifesto, an evolving document about what it feels like to be an Earthling; the JP Morgan-funded MIT Center for Collective Intelligence to help large numbers of people communicate peacefully and to better predict the future; and Stanford’s Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, which develops strategies for shifting the way cultures deal with a wide range existential threats.

In the fall of 2020, just a short drive from where Socolow lives, NYU philosophy professor and author of Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Kwame Anthony Appiah, hunkered down in the attic of a farmhouse to teach an online class on what Aristotle, Confucius, and Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali have to say about successfully living in a community. As Covid-19 was about to take its one-millionth victim, over 50 students from China, Nigeria, the United States and across Europe gathered remotely, virtually raising their hands to ask questions. At the click of a button, Appiah changed the view of his personal library behind him to the Vatican library in Rome and Michel de Montaigne’s office in the south of France. 

“We’re all together, because we’re thinking about global issues,” says Appiah, 67. “But they’re not abandoning their homes, they’re rooted in where they are, but desperately keen to interact with people from other places.” 

Appiah too was inspired by the moon. Back in the summer of 1969, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean from where the Socolows watched the landing, the 15-year-old London-native, raised in Ghana, was dialing the knobs on his brand-new silver boombox to record a radio signal broadcasting the same event.  “I just wanted some record of having been there when our species did this thing for the first time,” reflects Appiah. “In the very longest of long term, the only way our species or the species that descends from us will survive is if we figure out how to get to the cosmos, and this was the first step.”

As the Doomsday Clock approaches its 75th anniversary in January, the man who Bulletin president Rachel Bronson calls the “institutional memory” of the organization continues his own work with new ways to implement some of the first Destiny Studies courses in a series of freshman seminars called “Time Capsules for Climate Change to be Opened At Your Reunions.” For the past five years he’s taught a group of interdisciplinary Princeton students to analyze contingencies for how problems like pollution or transportation might play out over generations and millennia. Will electric cars be little more than toys for the rich, for example, or will they dominate global transportation? The main objective, as he wrote in his own letter deposited in the latest time capsule earlier this month, is to expand the students’ “range of empathy” across both space, and time. 

“You will be engaged by the challenge of sharing the planet, both spatially and temporally,” he writes. “Inventing ways to make human aspirations less injurious to the planet.” On December 9, he and the nine students in his latest class delivered the letter and their own contributions to the university library, which will store it until their graduation in 2025, their 10th reunion, their 20th reunion and their 50th reunion. “When you read this essay,” he concludes. “I expect that you will find that I have been no better than you at anticipating the future. In 2050 and 2075, give me a shout in heaven to let me know.”


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