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Vasili Arkhipov Day

23 Post author: wallowinmaya 27 October 2011 06:27AM

Stanislav Petrov is a rather famous person (of course only on Lesswrong, not in the real world).

But there is another Russian who saved the world:  Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov.

On this day in 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis Vasili Arkhipov prevented the launch of a nuclear torpedo and thus a possible nuclear war.

 

It's strange that Petrov attracts much more attention than Arkhipov. E.g. googling "Stanislav Petrov" produces 101.000 results, "Vasili Arkhipov" only 9.040 results. By contrast searching for "Britney Spears" generates about 295.000.000 results. Sorta depressing.

 

Anyway, let this day be the Vasili Arkhipov Day.  

Comments (25)

Comment author: Nick_Roy 27 October 2011 01:50:19PM 8 points [-]

A long-term goal of Less Wrong is to achieve the benefits of religion without becoming a religion. LW Meetups are partially an attempt at achieving a rationalist sense of community, for instance. Stanislav Petrov Day and Vasili Arkhipov Day are steps in the direction of rationalist rituals in general and rationalist holidays in specific. In addition to creating more holidays, I suggest that we figure out ways to celebrate them, rather than simply marking them.

I'll take a crack at it. A holiday celebrating existential risk reduction is a glorious opportunity to develop a habit of gratitude. (See Method #7 of lukeprog's How to Be Happy for the importance of gratitude.) Here are 5 things I am grateful for:

  • The way my personality shifts barely perceptibly toward the better when I'm socializing with people who have a positive influence on me, and the way this lasts, like inching up a rock wall toward a summit.

  • Worcester, Massachusetts sunrises and sunsets, which are not always beautiful, but are never the same.

  • My "good" parents, for their conscientiousness. Apparently I did not inherit it from them, but they do provide strong mimicable examples.

  • Modern medicine, for keeping me sane. Without aspirin, my TMJ pain would be serious trouble.

  • Less Wrong, for prompting me to improve myself. My friends have noticed my progress without me asking them about it.

What are you grateful for, or, alternatively, are there better ways to celebrate Vasili Arkhipov Day?

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 27 October 2011 02:18:12PM 8 points [-]

Modern medicine, for keeping me sane. Without aspirin, my TMJ pain would be serious trouble.

You can thank ancient medicine (not modern) for the use of "aspirin" to treat joint pain. Using medicines derived from willow trees and other salicylate-rich plants for pain relief has been around since at least Hippocrates and probably even the Sumerians.

Comment author: Nick_Roy 27 October 2011 09:51:02PM *  1 point [-]

True. I doubt it would be as cheap, safe and effective as it is without modernity, though.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 October 2011 04:22:01PM 0 points [-]

Indeed. Even plenty of nonhumans can figure out efficacious medicine from stuff around them.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 27 October 2011 04:17:15PM 5 points [-]

The last 10-15 years of medical research into treating brain aneurysms, and the increasing popularity of rapid-response stroke treatment protocols, without both of which I'd be either dead or permanently brain-damaged.

A cultural setting where a smart and personable working-class kid can more or less drift into a lucrative and not-too-challenging professional context.

A cultural setting where I can establish a household with my husband and have it legally and socially acknowledged as a family.

A cultural/technological setting where communication among like-minded folks across large geographic distances is trivial.

Comment author: atorm 27 October 2011 02:45:55PM 5 points [-]

I don't know about Vasili Arkhipov Day, but it's my understanding that Stanislav Petrov is now living in meager retirement. Celebration of Stanislav Petrov Day and other people who prevented existential risks from coming to fruition could involve rewarding those people with money as well as recognition. Although the Less Wrong community is probably too small to do it on their own, I for one would be happy to contribute to visible rewards for people who save the world.

Comment author: fburnaby 28 October 2011 03:23:55AM 4 points [-]

1) I'm grateful that there's a place on the internet where a good person will remind me to be grateful for things.

2) The world is still around, despite the risks.

3) This world exists, and us in it, for whatever difficult-to-imagine reasons or lack thereof.

4) I have an incredibly caring/patient/interesting girlfriend

5) I am equipped with sensory apparatus that can discriminate for high nutrient content in foods and butter chicken exists.

Comment author: RobertLumley 27 October 2011 03:04:19PM *  1 point [-]

I was in Worcester this summer... I wish I had gone to the Cambridge meetup while I was up there... There isn't one anywhere near Knoxville, TN. And I doubt Tennessee is really full of aspiring rationalists. sigh

And the sunrises and sunsets up there are pretty wonderful. OK. I never saw a sunrise. But the sunsets were nice. :-D

Comment author: Lapsed_Lurker 27 October 2011 07:33:14AM *  0 points [-]

How many times has the world/humanity/civilisation (probably civilisation at the largest) been saved from disaster by the actions of one person?

Is this something that's common enough to show up as the reason for there being no apparent aliens out there? Maybe once you get to world-civilisation level, there are so many chances for collapse, that some of them get through and keep civilisations from advancing. That doesn't seem like a strong enough filter to me - at least I really hope not - I have no desire to experience the post-apocalyptic genre personally.

[edit] Typos, spacing - looked a bit wall-of-words. Also curse big thumbs on little keyboard.

Comment author: djcb 27 October 2011 09:33:45AM 3 points [-]

How many times has the world/humanity/civilisation (probably civilisation at the largest) been saved from disaster by the actions of one person?

There might be a few unknown Vasilis/Stanislavs, and a couple of actions/inactions of leaders (e.g., Kennedy) that prevented a world-wide disaster, but before the atomic age it would be hard to single-handedly cause a civilization-threatening disaster.

This has not stopped writers and movie-makers to explore the trope ad nauseam though...

Comment author: betterthanwell 27 October 2011 03:15:52PM *  5 points [-]

There might be a few unknown Vasilis/Stanislavs, and a couple of actions/inactions of leaders (e.g., Kennedy) that prevented a world-wide disaster.

Favouring nomination of Kennedy.

Curtis LeMay was Chief of Strategic Air Command:

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, LeMay clashed again with U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Defense Secretary McNamara, arguing that he should be allowed to bomb nuclear missile sites in Cuba.

He opposed the naval blockade and, after the end of the crisis, suggested that Cuba be invaded anyway, even after the Russians agreed to withdraw. LeMay called the peaceful resolution of the crisis "the greatest defeat in our history".

Unknown to the U.S., the Soviet field commanders in Cuba had been given authority to launch—the only time such authority was delegated by higher command. They had twenty nuclear warheads for medium-range R-12 ballistic missiles capable of reaching U.S. cities (including Washington) and nine tactical nuclear missiles. If Soviet officers had launched them, many millions of U.S. citizens would have been killed. The ensuing SAC retaliatory thermonuclear strike would have killed roughly one hundred million Soviet citizens, and brought nuclear winter to much of the Northern Hemisphere.

Kennedy refused LeMay's requests, however, and the naval blockade was successful.

Comment author: betterthanwell 27 October 2011 03:41:43PM *  4 points [-]

One more thermonuclear anecdote from Wikipedia:

When General LeMay was named vice chief of staff of the Air Force in 1957, General Power became commander in chief of SAC and was promoted to four-star rank. But, although Power was LeMay's protégé, LeMay himself was quoted as privately saying that Power was mentally "not stable" and a "sadist".

When RAND proposed a counterforce strategy, which would require SAC to restrain itself from striking Soviet cities in the beginning of a war, Power countered with:

Restraint? Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards. At the end of the war if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win!

Comment author: Vaniver 27 October 2011 04:34:25PM 0 points [-]

Favouring nomination of Kennedy.

It seems unlikely that we would have been looking at a missile crisis in the first place if Nixon had been president, so it's not clear that Kennedy decreased existential risk on net.

Comment author: pedanterrific 27 October 2011 07:49:18AM 1 point [-]

How many times has the world/humanity/civilisation (probably civilisation at the largest) been saved from disaster by the actions of one person?

Almost certainly more than we know about, but I would put good odds that it's less than, say, fifty.

the reason for there being no apparent aliens out there

Great Filter on wikipedia.

Comment author: timtyler 27 October 2011 11:59:07AM *  0 points [-]

How many times has the world/humanity/civilisation (probably civilisation at the largest) been saved from disaster by the actions of one person?

Zero times: that has never happened.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 27 October 2011 12:41:30PM 1 point [-]

Are you asserting in the cases of Petrov and Arkhipov that events would not have turned into full scale war or that you think it is likely that additional events in the chain could have prevented that? If the first, I'm curious as to your logic. If the second, how proximate a cause do you need before you think you can speak of someone saving the world?

Comment author: timtyler 27 October 2011 01:15:46PM *  2 points [-]

So: zero is my rounded estimate. The argument the destruction of civilisation would have ensued if Vasili Arkhipov had acted otherwise seems flimsy and insubstantial to me - and similarly for the other claimants. It all adds up to less than 0.5.

Are you asserting in the cases of Petrov and Arkhipov that events would not have turned into full scale war or that you think it is likely that additional events in the chain could have prevented that?

Self-evidently the destruction of the world requires the first and not the second. My estimate is based on the joint probability - and not on the consideration of just one factor or the other. So: since neither factor is insignificant, I reject the dichotomy.

how proximate a cause do you need before you think you can speak of someone saving the world?

It would usually be better to give probability estimates than to crudely divide the population into "saviours of the world" - and "everyone else".

Comment author: [deleted] 27 October 2011 04:27:38PM 0 points [-]

Petrov himself didn't have the authority to launch a counterstrike, nor would his word have been sufficient for it -- the system was designed to require multiple sources reporting a launch. Petrov did do something valuable anyway: he exposed a flaw in the Soviet early-warning system.

Comment author: Lapsed_Lurker 27 October 2011 12:10:19PM 1 point [-]

Because there has not yet been a potential disaster that bad, or because more than one person was important to the disaster being averted?

Comment author: timtyler 27 October 2011 01:32:35PM *  0 points [-]

Because there has not yet been a potential disaster that bad, or because more than one person was important to the disaster being averted?

We do have enough nuclear weapons to kill all humans, and there is some chance of them all simultaneously being detonated - so I would not endorse the first clause. The second clause is not the only alternative, though: consider also the case where the probability of disaster per unit time is small.

Comment author: Vaniver 27 October 2011 04:32:16PM 1 point [-]

We do have enough nuclear weapons to kill all humans

It's not clear this is the case, actually, despite it being a part of the common culture. Nuclear winter style scenarios are possible, but even then it's not clear that all humans would die.

Comment author: timtyler 27 October 2011 05:12:26PM *  1 point [-]

OK. I was really just trying to say that I agreed that there was some chance of a rapid violent end of humanity.

Nuclear winter -> reglaciation -> meteorite strike - or whatever scenario you prefer.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 27 October 2011 12:39:39PM *  0 points [-]

How many times has the world/humanity/civilisation (probably civilisation at the largest) been saved from disaster by the actions of one person?

Unknown. It wouldn't surprise me for example if there were a few Cold-War crisises that are still essentially classified. But the technology has only really been sufficiently bad to have a chance to destroy humanity in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Even when the US and USSR both had nukes in the 1950s it is unlikely therw would have been enough to wipe out humanity.

Comment author: timtyler 27 October 2011 01:43:36PM *  2 points [-]

Interestingly, I think the best case for human actions leading to world destruction take us back thousands to millions of years - where the butterfly effect leads to the action of each individual having a large effect on the future. Since the dead outnumber the living maybe around twenty-to-one, I figure they have the biggest chance of doing something that eventually has the effect of averting the end of the world.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 October 2011 04:25:12PM 0 points [-]

Timeless Protagonist Theory?