Atomic Scientists Need to Stop the Clock

"Mom," Amy asks seriously, "Can I talk to you about something?"

This usually is the opening line to a true confession. I expect the next thing out of her mouth will be a story about visiting the vice principal's office or a warning to expect a call from someone's mother.

Either she's going to 'fess up to something embarrassing (for her — not me) or else she's going to ask a question that's embarrassing (for me — not her).

"Sure," I say. I brace myself for something ugly.

"Today some kids were talking about a story in the newspaper. Something about a clock in London and how there are only five minutes until Doomsday. Do you know what that's about?"

Doomsday? Is that all? This is such a relief.

Amy's topic for the ride home from school could have been something sticky such as, "Did you ever smoke cigarettes?" or, "How many times have you been stopped by the police?" Comparatively, Doomsday is easy.

I explain the Doomsday Clock, a public relations gimmick of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that denotes the world's risks because of nuclear proliferation. I tell her about the news story that says that for the first time, the Atomic Scientists last month included climate changes in their assessment of risk to the planet, ranking global warming as potentially as dire as the dangers posed by nuclear war.

Finally, I emphasize that there's really no such thing as a clock that marks the minutes until the world comes to an end.

"It's just a way to draw attention to issues that these scientists believe are important," I say. "In fact, they change the time backward and forward to show when they think things are getting more or less safe in the world.

"People are always predicting the end of the world, despite the Bible's clear emphasis on the element of surprise as a key feature of this undisclosed day," I say.

To allay her fears, I even recount the silliness of the Y2K hype seven years ago when folks stockpiled bottled water, cans of baked beans and portable generators. "They did this just in case changing the date on the calendar caused certain destruction of the world as we knew it."

Eventually I get Amy to giggle, which is no small feat. "I'm so relieved," she finally admits, "because if Doomsday is happening in London, that's bad. The whole cast of High School Musical is there right now."

At last, her real fear is revealed. "Not to worry," I say. "The cast is fine."

Small wonder our children aren't in a perpetual state of panic, given the headlines to which they're subjected simply by grabbing the paper off the front porch to check the weather report.

Case in point: the quote attributed to Stephen Hawking, cosmologist, mathematician and member of the Atomic Scientists: "Terror only kills hundreds or thousands of people. Global warming could kill millions."

Well there's a cheerful thought to feed the optimism and confidence of a new generation.

I happen to think the Atomic Scientists (am I the only one who thinks this sounds like the name of a rock band?) may have put their credibility at risk by departing from the message of nuclear safety, but I digress.

My real point is: I think as a culture we're weirdly prone to scaring our children by infusing them with an overwhelming sense of dread about the future.

The headline in my paper that read "11:55 p.m. — 'Doomsday Clock' moved amid fears of disaster" does nothing to promote action or advocacy, at least not for me. Rather than impel me to rise up against the forces of abomination, I pretty much dismiss all of it and suggest to my family that we go out to eat.

Let's see… unchecked destruction of the Earth's atmosphere or burgers at our favorite neighborhood pub? I pick burgers. At least we can control the outcome (medium, with fries, side of slaw) and concentrate on the here and now.

Not surprisingly, my children think the world today is more dangerous and unstable than it ever has been. Thanks to media messages charged with urgency and emotion (read: trying to achieve ratings and readership), they're convinced the problems we face are more threatening and horrific than at any time in our history.

Of course, this isn't true.

What is true is that America's children enjoy more comfort and security than any generation of human beings ever has; they live in more relative wealth than anyone on Earth.

It's crucial that our children understand this, because the extent to which they will respond to the issues we hand to them (when at last we pick up our shuffleboard sticks and pass them the torch of leadership) depends largely on their sense that the world is worth saving and that they are the ones who can do it.

The world does not need a generation of hopeless, helpless people, raised in the belief that everything is going to hell in a handbasket (duh and whatever).

Just how do we ensure that our children avoid the pessimism implied in the "Doomsday" headline? For starters, let's nix the fanfare around the Atomic Scientists' clock.

If there's a clock ticking, it ought to be counting the moments of optimism and hope that are the birthright of every generation.

Even scientists can use some perspective. After all, the cast of High School Musical is safe in London, and tomorrow is another day.

Burgers anyone?

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  • Guest

    I don't have any children, but do teach parish religious ed to 7th graders.  Yesterday, they also asked about the Doomsday Clock, which was a surprise as it was quite a tangent from our discussion about the Eucharist.  But like Mary Beth, I could sense urgency and some fear in their question, so we started talking about God's plan for the world, time, heaven & hell, and judgment in a way that seemed to allay some concerns and transition us back to the main topic.  I definitely didn't answer this as well as Mary Beth did to her daughter, and am glad to now have this article in my back pocket for future discussions.  Her example about the Y2K scare is still very current for them, and I hope I remember it if this topic comes up again.  Thanks for including these columns in CE!

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