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9/26 is Petrov Day

87 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 26 September 2007 04:14PM

Today is September 26th, Petrov Day, celebrated to honor the deed of Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov on September 26th, 1983.  Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, take a minute to not destroy the world.

The story begins on September 1st, 1983, when Soviet jet interceptors shot down a Korean Air Lines civilian airliner after the aircraft crossed into Soviet airspace and then, for reasons still unknown, failed to respond to radio hails.  269 passengers and crew died, including US Congressman Lawrence McDonald.  Ronald Reagan called it "barbarism", "inhuman brutality", "a crime against humanity that must never be forgotten".  Note that this was already a very, very poor time for US/USSR relations.  Andropov, the ailing Soviet leader, was half-convinced the US was planning a first strike.  The KGB sent a flash message to its operatives warning them to prepare for possible nuclear war.

On September 26th, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was the officer on duty when the warning system reported a US missile launch.  Petrov kept calm, suspecting a computer error.

Then the system reported another US missile launch.

And another, and another, and another.

What had actually happened, investigators later determined, was sunlight on high-altitude clouds aligning with the satellite view on a US missile base.

In the command post there were beeping signals, flashing lights, and officers screaming at people to remain calm.  According to several accounts I've read, there was a large flashing screen from the automated computer system saying simply "START" (presumably in Russian). Afterward, when investigators asked Petrov why he hadn't written everything down in the logbook, Petrov replied,"Because I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don't have a third hand."

The policy of the Soviet Union called for launch on warning.  The Soviet Union's land radar could not detect missiles over the horizon, and waiting for positive identification would limit the response time to minutes.  Petrov's report would be relayed to his military superiors, who would decide whether to start a nuclear war.

Petrov decided that, all else being equal, he would prefer not to destroy the world.  He sent messages declaring the launch detection a false alarm, based solely on his personal belief that the US did not seem likely to start an attack using only five missiles.

Petrov was first congratulated, then extensively interrogated, then reprimanded for failing to follow procedure.  He resigned in poor health from the military several months later.  According to Wikipedia, he is spending his retirement in relative poverty in the town of Fryazino, on a pension of $200/month.  In 2004, the Association of World Citizens gave Petrov a trophy and $1000.  There is also a movie scheduled for release in 2008, entitled The Red Button and the Man Who Saved the World.

Maybe someday, the names of people who decide not to start nuclear wars will be as well known as the name of Britney Spears.  Looking forward to such a time, when humankind has grown a little wiser, let us celebrate, in this moment, Petrov Day.

Comments (57)

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Comment author: steven 26 September 2007 05:24:22PM 4 points [-]

Is it your actual opinion that nuclear war between the US and USSR would have destroyed the world (or human civilization), or was that just a figure of speech? The distinction seems worth upholding.

Comment author: mbh007 27 September 2010 05:35:14AM 1 point [-]

I'd say its fact. Considering we employed the Mutual Assured Destruction Doctrine during the Cold War. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_assured_destruction

Comment author: Jimmc 29 September 2010 07:39:08PM 4 points [-]

This is actually not that relevant. The only question is whether humanity could survive a Nuclear Winter...

Comment author: robertskmiles 13 September 2012 10:27:07PM *  6 points [-]

He didn't say "Wipe out humanity", he said "destroy the world". I'd say a global thermonuclear conflict would do enough damage to call the world destroyed, even if humanity wasn't utterly and irrevocably annihilated.

If I smashed your phone against a wall, you'd say I'd destroyed it, even if it could in principle be repaired.

Comment author: RavenChair 30 September 2012 03:26:55PM 4 points [-]

The answer here falls to semantics. 1. Yes, it's probably just meant as a figure of speech; in which case, it's acceptable. 2. He said "world" and not "planet". "World" can be defined as a sphere of human influence; in which case, it's also accurate. So, yes, he kept the world from being destroyed.

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous 26 September 2007 05:39:13PM 1 point [-]

Another really great post. Although I agree with Steven's comment. The impact of a Soviet response nuclear strike would be disastrous enough that we don't have to claim that it would "destroy the world". Particularly since we may soon be weighing existential risk against stuff that could actually do just that.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 26 September 2007 05:54:30PM 3 points [-]

Yes, fair enough.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 26 September 2007 06:16:38PM 21 points [-]

Can anyone arrange to get money to this man or his family? I'm tempted to donate, to honor his deed.

Comment author: Genevieve 26 September 2007 06:50:59PM 9 points [-]

Robin: You might want to try contacting the Association of World's Citizens. They know how to contact him, obviously, because they gave him an award. They'd be easier to contact than the folks making the movie as well, I imagine.

Eliezer: Great post. I hadn't known of Petrov before.

Comment author: Genevieve 26 September 2007 06:55:55PM 0 points [-]

Oh, I should clarify that. By easier to contact, I mean "easier to find contact information for," not the probability that someone will write you back.

Comment author: CarlShulman 26 September 2007 07:06:36PM 5 points [-]

"I'm tempted to donate, to honor his deed." Presumably he has received some cash from the documentary, but the incentives created by his later life (and its publication) are horribly perverse.

It seems that this is right up the alley of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which is supported by Warren Buffett and other donors. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_Threat_Initiative You could write a letter to them discussing the incentives and suggesting a prize for averting mega-disasters or existential risk, nominating Petrov for the first award.

Comment author: Aaron3 26 September 2007 07:22:42PM 14 points [-]

"He sent messages declaring the launch detection a false alarm, based solely on his personal belief that the US did not seem likely to start an attack using only five missiles."

According to the Wikipedia article, Petrov claimed that he had other reasons for believing it was false alarm: lack of corroborating evidence from ground satellites and the fact that the detection technology was new and immature.

Comment author: bla 26 September 2007 07:27:40PM 2 points [-]

It warms my heart to finally hear people question the literal "destroy the world" concept of thermonuclear weapon trade-offs. Even Carl Sagan seemed to fall victim to that sort of rhetoric. On the other hand, perhaps the evidence suggests they really would have destroyed the world.

Comment author: Aaron3 26 September 2007 07:33:02PM 2 points [-]

Oops, as a correction to my previous comment, that should be "ground radars." "Ground satellites" is just an oxymoron.

Comment author: Tom_McCabe 26 September 2007 07:33:41PM 4 points [-]

"Can anyone arrange to get money to this man or his family? I'm tempted to donate, to honor his deed."

http://digg.com/world_news/14_years_ago_The_man_who_saved_millions_of_American_lives?t=9337109#c9343594

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 06 July 2014 07:50:25PM 0 points [-]

The link is not working, but the original story can be found here.

Comment author: Eric4 26 September 2007 10:34:59PM 7 points [-]

"It warms my heart to finally hear people question the literal "destroy the world" concept of thermonuclear weapon trade-offs."

Okay, take a moment not to seriously and dramatically damage the world and kill millions of people. Still, worth a day named in your honour, $1 000 and a trophy at least.

Comment author: Ken2 27 September 2007 04:37:53AM 7 points [-]

"Destroying the world" describes things fairly accurately. Who believes a nuclear strike on the major Soviet Union and American cities wouldn't have destroyed the world? Life, I'm sure wouldn't have ended (even human), but the fall out and human loss would have been catastrophic. It's easy to question this 20-30 years after the fact, but I remember the fear the world festered in in the 70's and 80's. If a nuclear missile had been launched, dozens if not hundreds would have been launched.

The change in world view and behavior would have been larger than any event in human history. Millions, possibly over a billion, lives would have been lost, and the prosperity of the world that started in the 70's, which has lifted over a billion out of abject poverty, would have come to screeching halt.

Comment author: Ken2 27 September 2007 04:38:44AM 0 points [-]

"Destroying the world" describes things fairly accurately. Who believes a nuclear strike on the major Soviet Union and American cities wouldn't have destroyed the world? Life, I'm sure wouldn't have ended (even human), but the fall out and human loss would have been catastrophic. It's easy to question this 20-30 years after the fact, but I remember the fear the world festered in in the 70's and 80's. If a nuclear missile had been launched, dozens if not hundreds would have been launched.

The change in world view and behavior would have been larger than any event in human history. Millions, possibly over a billion, lives would have been lost, and the prosperity of the world that started in the 70's, which has lifted over a billion out of abject poverty, would have come to screeching halt.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 27 September 2007 02:50:56PM 5 points [-]

I think the "would the world have been destroyed" comments are addressed pretty well by this bit from :

"Given the likely scale and effects of a nuclear attack, it's most unlikely that the everybody will be killed. There will be survivors and they will rebuild a society but it will have nothing in common with what was there before. So, to all intents and purposes, once a society initiates a nuclear exchange it's gone forever."

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 27 September 2007 02:52:24PM 1 point [-]

Gah. Messed up my previous comment (next time, I'll use preview). It should have read "this bit from Nuclear Warfare 101".

Comment author: steven 27 September 2007 02:53:52PM 2 points [-]

Nuclear war would have been unimaginably awful, and Petrov deserves all the positive attention he's getting and more. But there's a distinction between destroying the world and destroying much of the world, and our descendants a millions years from now, if any, will find this distinction very significant.

Comment author: steven 27 September 2007 02:56:51PM 0 points [-]

I don't believe that a post-nuclear society would "have nothing in common with what was there before", but I wouldn't object to calling it "destroying the world as we know it".

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous 27 September 2007 03:08:54PM 2 points [-]

"destroying the world as we know it" as a phrase seems to me to be both empty and endlessly contestible. I don't see harm in stating things a bit more precisely, and there are plenty of such descriptions available for the effects of nuclear strikes and nuclear war. Also, the internet and generally wide distribution of technological knowledge has done its job. It seems likely to me that almost all useful human knowledge would survive a nuclear war.

Comment author: steven 27 September 2007 03:21:41PM 1 point [-]

That seems likely to me too. There wasn't much of an internet in 1983, though.

Comment author: Stuart_Armstrong 27 September 2007 03:50:15PM 3 points [-]

It seems likely to me that almost all useful human knowledge would survive a nuclear war.

Except the day to day expertise in running and functioning in the current complex society, and the well-known and well-accepted boundaries between different power groups. I think we tend to underestimate the importance of that knowledge.

Plus knowledge is useless without an ideology that can sift the good from the bad with accepatable accuracy. And such ideologies may be in short suply after a nuclear war.

Eliezer: Great post. I hadn't known of Petrov before.

Like some brain-dead AOLer, all I can say is: me too.

Comment author: Anders_Sandberg 29 September 2007 08:54:15PM 3 points [-]

In my opinion a full scale thermonuclear war would likely neither have wiped out humanity (I'm reading the original nuclear winter papers as well as their criticisms right now) nor wiped out civilization. It would have been terribly bad for both though. I did a small fictional writeup of such a scenario for a roleplaying game, http://www.nada.kth.se/~asa/Game/Fukuyama/bigd.html based in turn on the information in "The Effects of Nuclear War" (OTA 1979). That scenario may have been too optimistic, but it is hard to tell. It seems that much would depend on exact timing and level of forewarning. But even in the most optimistic scenario the repercussions on human progress would have been severe since human capital is disproportionally concentrated in cities that are likely to be devastated. This can in turn make other threats to human flourishing more serious. For example, in my scenario AIDS is likely to become a far more devastating epidemic than in our world since the rate of research into it has been much reduced and the seriousness of the epidemic is overshadowed by war-related conditions.

Comment author: J_Thomas 29 September 2007 09:46:33PM 3 points [-]

A full-scale thermonuclear war would have had lots of unintended consequences. We are not in a good position to decide whether everybody would be killed. To help us decide that we have a sample of size zero.

Predicting complex systems, very often we are wrong. In as simple a question as whether an airliner accident would cause WTC to collapse, everybody who tried to predict it got it wrong.

I would guess that a sheepherder in paraguay who has never seen many effects from the industrial revolution ought to be minimally affected. He shouldn't get much radiation unless somebody intentionally uses cobalt bombs or such. He should be able to live just fine without new steel knives and such. I guess there would be no subtle interactions that would kill him, and I have no basis for that guess except my lack of imagination.

We could certainly design a nuclear war to kill everybody. It's called a doomsday device, and it would be possible to make one that was fairly certain to be effective. The question of just how small a full-scale thermonuclear war would have to be to not kill everybody, is not something we can estimate with any degree of certainty without repeating the experiment enough times to get a decent sample size.

Why would we think we know the answer to this question? If we could reasonably predict whether a full-scale nuclear war would kill everybody, why can't we design a warplane from scratch and build it from untested plans and have it fly correctly the first time?

Comment author: homunq 14 November 2011 04:18:07PM 0 points [-]

It's hard to say that everyone got WTC collapse wrong. Obviously, the people who flew those airliners had some sort of expectation in their head about what would happen, and it may well have been relatively accurate.

Comment author: gwern 14 November 2011 04:48:06PM 3 points [-]

it may well have been relatively accurate.

Depends on what relatively accurate is. Bin Laden was off by about 2 or 3 orders of magnitude, depending on how you count floors and number of collapsed buildings: http://www.gwern.net/Terrorism%20is%20not%20Effective#fn4

Comment author: Desrtopa 14 November 2011 04:29:06PM 1 point [-]

I would guess that a sheepherder in paraguay who has never seen many effects from the industrial revolution ought to be minimally affected. He shouldn't get much radiation unless somebody intentionally uses cobalt bombs or such. He should be able to live just fine without new steel knives and such. I guess there would be no subtle interactions that would kill him, and I have no basis for that guess except my lack of imagination.

Unless he's part of a subsistence community (and even in underdeveloped countries most agrarian workers are not,) he's still economically tied to industrialized civilization. He's still directly or indirectly dependent on a consumer market that's now gone.

Comment author: sbrogden 01 October 2007 01:48:50PM 1 point [-]

Yikes! Never heard of this guy (not that I recall). Glad he didn't push the button - I was XO of an Atomic Demolition Munitions Combat Engineer company at Fort Hood that was part of the Rapid Deployment Force. I think that many such decisions have been made by men throughout history, avoiding much mayhem and destruction. For such, we should thank God and endeavor to think before we act.

Comment author: Nick_Bostrom2 04 October 2007 12:41:56AM 2 points [-]

Carl, I like your suggestion to establish a prize for avoing mega-disasters and existential risks. (Meanwhile, I'm going to send Petrov a small donation.)

One of the bias issues this raises is the possibility of bias in how we allocate our attention. One could think of an attention allocation as if it involved an implicit belief that "this is worth attending to". Then we can think of how this kind of implicit belief might be biased. For example, in the ancestral environment nobody was worth attending to because they had prevented millions of deaths by refraining from pressing a button; so maybe we are biased in the direction of allocating too little attention to such acts... Some future post might explore this in more detail.

Eliezer, thanks for your post.

Comment author: Recovering_irrationalist 22 October 2007 01:27:54PM 3 points [-]

Hat-tip too to Vasili Arkhipov.

The most troubling thing is how often this happens. Where were you on January 25, 1995?

Comment author: Ben_Clark 27 November 2007 06:34:25PM 0 points [-]

God bless the bureaucrats. They can be much better decision makers than elected officials at times.

Comment author: Chris 27 November 2007 07:52:26PM 0 points [-]

Nick, sure, heroically not doing something will never grab the attention in the way that doing something does. Today, approximately 1,000,000 cars in Paris were not burned. So what makes the headlines ?

Comment author: Alexei_Turchin 20 January 2008 04:03:32PM 3 points [-]

It is interesting to mention that Petrov was not simple and ordinary officier in the bunker.

He was an author of instructions for red button. He took this duty that day occasionaly, just 'for rest'. And his own instruction prescribed him to start the war. But being an author of the instruction, he understood that it is wrong. If any other were on his place his instruction will kill all of us.

Comment author: James_D._Miller 26 September 2008 07:31:27PM 3 points [-]

"Maybe someday, the names of people who decide not to start nuclear wars will be as well known as the name of Britney Spears." should read:

"Maybe someday, the names of people who prevent wars from occurring will be as well known as the names of people who win wars."

Comment author: wrongish 04 June 2013 05:15:18PM -1 points [-]

I think it's safe to say that virtually all major wars are caused by forces too powerful for one single person to make a difference.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 June 2013 06:27:45PM 3 points [-]

The history books I have read do not strongly support this assertion. E.g. WWII was a product of Hitler's personality and Hitler's false predictions about how e.g. Britain would react to an invasion of Poland.

Comment author: BerryPick6 04 June 2013 06:32:10PM *  1 point [-]
Comment author: ialdabaoth 04 June 2013 06:36:44PM *  2 points [-]

One argument that gets a lot of traction in sociology is that only someone with Hitler's personality and particular proclivities towards those false predictions could have grabbed the attention of the German people and founded the Third Reich. It's not-quite predestination, but it's an attempt to sort-of formalize the idea that "one man can't make a difference"; that history is run by vast impersonal forces. The countertheory of course is the "Great Man" theory, where WWII was entirely about Hitler and Churchhill and FDR wielding their armies of teeming faceless heroes against each other like the Swords of Heaven.

The third alternative (that history occasionally focuses on critical cusps, where the smallest perturbation causes wildly different global downstream consequences) is rarely really discussed.

To put another way:

Hitler was not magic. The economic, social and technological conditions that gave rise to the Third Reich would have caused a similar conflict regardless of who rose to power. But the fact that it was Adolph Hitler who DID in fact rise to power, and that FDR and Chamberlain and Churchill and Stalin were the powers in their own states, crystalized all the particulars.

To use a physical metaphor, once the temperature of a fluid drops below its freezing point, it WILL freeze. But the particulars of where and what the impurities happen to be will determine exactly what the crystals look like, and those can be vastly different with just a tiny bit of change.

Comment author: shminux 04 June 2013 10:02:18PM 3 points [-]

Hitler was not magic. The economic, social and technological conditions that gave rise to the Third Reich would have caused a similar conflict regardless of who rose to power.

It would probably have caused a conflict, but I take issue with "similar". History has so many cusps, each potentially and unpredictably leading in several possible directions, with only one observed. What if Germany used graphite for fission, what if Germany decided to finish off Britain before engaging Russia, what if at least one of the Hitler assassination attempts were successful, etc. Same with almost any other time and place. In addition, the medium- and long-term consequences are also unpredictable, and what seems initially like a positive development could well turn out to be negative.

In your physical metaphor I'd compare it with freezing solid and staying solid, vs freezing, cracking and crumbling into pieces.

Comment author: Yvain2 26 September 2008 08:59:53PM 3 points [-]

Given that full-scale nuclear war would either destroy the world or vastly reduce the number of living people, Petrov, Arkhipov, and all the other "heroic officer makes unlikely decision to avert nuclear war" stories Recovering Irrationalist describes above make a more convincing test case for the anthropic principle than an LHC breakdown or two.

Comment author: John_Maxwell 27 September 2008 12:43:41AM 1 point [-]

This business with nuclear retaliation reminds me of a game we played in microeconomics class. The game goes something like this: Person 1 starts with $10 and offers another Person 2 $A of that amount. Person 2 can choose to accept or reject. If the deal is accepted, Person 2 receives $A and Person 1 receives $10 - A. If the deal is rejected, neither party receives anything.

As far as I can tell, it's never rational to release a nuclear bomb. And it's never rational to reject money in aforementioned game. But in both situations, it is advantageous to trick the other person into thinking there are circumstances where you would do the irrational.

On a related note, perhaps some Overcoming Bias readers who can't think of anything interesting to do with their lives could infiltrate the military and try to get their finger on the proverbial nuclear button, just to make sure it never gets pushed.

Comment author: AngryParsley 26 September 2010 06:16:55AM 9 points [-]

I wish this post could be bumped to the front page every September 26th.

Comment author: LKBM 26 September 2010 03:05:28PM 0 points [-]

John_Maxwell: It's called the Ultimatum Game, and you're right that assuming you're only playing once, it's irrational to refuse any offer, but of course people do.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 26 September 2010 03:11:59PM *  4 points [-]

It might be symptomatic of an error to refuse the actual offer, but you can benefit from having the property of refusing the counterfactual offers that would never be actually made (as a result of your having that property).

Comment author: PeerInfinity 26 September 2010 04:36:31PM 5 points [-]

The movie "The Red Button and the Man Who Saved the World" is released now.

http://www.logtv.com/films/redbutton/video.htm

Comment author: RobinZ 26 September 2010 04:45:36PM 1 point [-]

Isn't the president's name spelled "Reagan"?

Comment author: Document 22 March 2011 07:52:55AM 0 points [-]

Where? I don't see it on their Ordering page.

Comment author: simplicio 14 October 2010 05:00:45AM 8 points [-]

...saying simply "START" (presumably in Russian)

It actually said "Start" in Cyrillic letters: "СТАРТ." The foreign term is used in certain contexts, like the starting line of a race or indeed, on a pushbutton on/off control.

I know because I heard a Russian language interview with Petrov.

Comment author: Bugle 26 September 2012 09:38:30PM 2 points [-]

Bump for this year's Petrov Day