Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Stanislav Petrov Day

35 Post author: gwern 26 September 2011 02:49PM

A reminder for everyone: on this day in 1983, Stanislav Petrov saved the world.

It occurs to me this time around that there's an interesting relationship here - 9/26 is forgotten, while 9/11 is remembered. Do something charitable, and not patriotic, sometime today.

Comments (164)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 26 September 2011 06:37:14PM *  19 points [-]

The research commented on and linked to in some threads below don't pass the sniff test. It claims that 50 air-burst Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons would cause a terrible nuclear winter and a new ice age. Yet neither the 3 weapons at Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, nor the 528 air and ground-burst nuclear weapons set off over the next 35 years, most having more explosive power than 50 Hiroshima-sized bombs, had observed effects on the weather. Neither did the many German and Japanese cities that the Allies burned at least as thoroughly via conventional weapons. Much more area burned in Tokyo and Dresden than in Hiroshima.

If they were talking about ground bursts of high-yield weapons, I just might give them some credibility... but 50 15-kt air-bursts?

The Castle Bravo test was a ground-burst test with a yield of 15 Mt, 1000 times the yield of the bomb used on Hiroshima. A ground burst throws much, much more dust into the air than an air burst. I'm not aware that any effect on weather was observed. Perhaps this is explained by there not having been a lot of combustible material at the site of the explosion.

"Heavy fire damage was sustained in a circular area in Hiroshima with a mean radius of about 6000 feet and a maximum radius of about 11000 feet." That's 4 square miles. We have burned an average of 5800 square miles of Amazonian rain forest every year since 1970, again with no observed temperature drop.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 28 September 2011 02:43:55AM 2 points [-]

Has no one put those 500+ nuclear winter causing blasts into the atmospheric models for historical global warming? What of the burning of the Amazonian rain forests?

That could make for some interesting arguments.

Comment author: lessdazed 28 September 2011 02:55:56AM *  6 points [-]

When it comes to damaging the environment, bet on destructive systems to do more harm than countable events.

This includes invasive species, urban sprawl, and overfishing in one group and volcanoes, tidal waves, nuclear tests and oil spills in the other. I think it's more important than the natural/man-made dichotomy that is the way I am instinctively inclined to think of these things.

Comment author: MugaSofer 26 September 2012 12:27:18PM -2 points [-]

neither the 3 weapons at Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, nor the 528 air and ground-burst nuclear weapons set off over the next 35 years, [...] had observed effects on the weather.

Or did they?! Dun dun duun!

Comment author: BlackNoise 30 September 2011 11:38:29AM 10 points [-]

Anyone else get hit with a sense of sheer terror as they figured the connection between this story and the anthropic principle?

Comment author: wallowinmaya 27 September 2011 07:49:56AM 9 points [-]

Talking of Russians who saved the world, is October 27 the Vasili Arkhipov Day?

Comment author: wedrifid 25 November 2011 06:13:01AM 1 point [-]

And if that is the case it seems appropriate that we also 'honour' the Americans who almost destroyed the world. "Oooh, ooh, let's surround a nuclear sub and drop charges at it. That's bound to end well!"

Comment author: Lapsed_Lurker 27 September 2011 01:38:08PM 7 points [-]

Could 'not starting nuclear armageddon' be considered "...the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, ..." ?

If he qualifies by virtue of the above, then a campaign to give him a Nobel Peace Prize seems the thing to do.

Comment author: wedrifid 27 September 2011 03:19:06PM 3 points [-]

If he qualifies by virtue of the above, then a campaign to give him a Nobel Peace Prize seems the thing to do.

Definitely. And until such time as he is granted the Nobel Peace Prize the whole system should be ridiculed as an utter farce.

Comment author: satt 27 September 2011 11:35:16PM 6 points [-]

Wouldn't be the first time they dropped the ball, either.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 September 2011 01:49:49AM 12 points [-]

I agree with your sentiment but respectfully disagree with the details. First, Yasser Arafat got a Nobel Peace Prize so the system is already an utter farce. And second, if it wasn't an utter farce, you could make a good case for Petrov getting an honorable mention rather than the main prize, because there are people who've spent decades working hard for peace.

Comment author: SilasBarta 28 September 2011 04:13:18PM 12 points [-]

A non-farce award should base its judgment on results, not effort. A peace activist who spends his entire career digging and refilling a hole, for example, should not be anywhere near the Peace Prize shortlist. Despite the little time he spent, Petrov did more for world peace than many others who have been working longer -- not that his decision was easy, anyway.

Comment author: Vaniver 28 September 2011 04:28:08PM 6 points [-]

If prizes exist to incentivize people, there will be cases where you get superior effects from incentivizing effort rather than results.

Comment author: SilasBarta 28 September 2011 05:34:38PM 8 points [-]

Maybe. It still comes at the cost of reduced emphasis (at the margin) by activists on thinking clearly about what results they'll actually get -- a kind of thinking definitely in short supply.

Like with FAI, world-changing activism is not a case where you want to play "A for effort", as that tends to reward groups like Bolsheviks, who undoubtedly threw a lot of effort into a world peace strategy.

Comment author: [deleted] 30 September 2012 12:47:33AM 2 points [-]

A non-farce award should base its judgment on results, not effort.

BTW, that appears to be how the Nobel Prize in Physics is achieved: for being shown to be right, with relatively little regard to how you came to be right.

Comment author: DanielLC 26 September 2012 12:30:54AM 1 point [-]

This sounds like the Superhero Bias. Stanislav Petrov refrained from doing something and saved the world. This shows that he values the world more than a few seconds worth of working. If someone spends decades working hard on something that creates significantly less peace, then that shows that they value that smaller amount of peace to be worth decades worth of work. If they spend their career digging and refilling a hole, which they know very well does not cause peace, that shows nothing about how much they value peace.

Comment author: SilasBarta 26 September 2012 05:41:46AM 2 points [-]

So you would reward them for having deluded themselves into believing that the digging/reflling holes project would bring world peace? There's no reward for making your beliefs conform to reality in this quest for peace?

And could you elaborate the connection to superhero bias? I'm just not seeing it.

Comment author: DanielLC 26 September 2012 06:19:27AM *  -1 points [-]

I reward someone who works their whole life on the best cause they find. I don't reward the guy who got lucky. I also won't reward someone for being ridiculously stupid, but it's not as if Petrov got into that situation by intelligence.

And could you elaborate the connection to superhero bias?

Who shows more heroism: someone who can annihilate bullets on contact giving some of his time to save 200 children, or someone who risks his life to save three prostitutes? Who shows more heroism: someone who risks their job to save the world, or someone who spends their entire career when they have an opportunity for a smaller amount of good?

Comment author: SilasBarta 26 September 2012 04:50:06PM *  1 point [-]

I reward someone who works their whole life on the best cause they find. I don't reward the guy who got lucky. I also won't reward someone for being ridiculously stupid

Okay, but what makes you think that it was an easy decision in the first place? It sounds like hindsight bias, to act like, because we now know that it was a false alarm, it must have been obvious without the later knowledge. Also, disobeying orders with so much at stake requires significant courage.

And could you elaborate the connection to superhero bias?

Who shows more heroism: someone who can annihilate bullets on contact giving some of his time to save 200 children, or someone who risks his life to save three prostitutes? Who shows more heroism: someone who risks their job to save the world, or someone who spends their entire career when they have an opportunity for a smaller amount of good?

Right, I understand. I read the article. I was not asking for a summary, but for you to explain how that applies to the specific argument I made. Are you saying that Petrov had superhero level powers, and so his act was relatively trivial? Again, how does my claim here fit the superhero bias template?

Comment author: DanielLC 27 September 2012 12:17:31AM 1 point [-]

It sounds like hindsight bias, to act like, because we now know that it was a false alarm, it must have been obvious without the later knowledge.

I guess his intelligence was involved somewhat. Also, I'm not sure why I thought that was all that relevant. I wouldn't reward someone for doing something that they convinced themselves would save the world. That doesn't really apply to Petrov.

Are you saying that Petrov had superhero level powers, and so his act was relatively trivial?

It was luck instead of powers, but basically. It wasn't that he's a superhero per se. It's just the same sort of extreme version of the halo effect. He was in a situation where he could do extreme good at extremely low cost, which makes him seem really heroic without actually being very heroic at all.

Comment author: Larks 26 September 2012 09:44:25AM 1 point [-]

We should encourage people to be more lucky, especially as much 'luck' is simply skill that the uninitiated aren't capable of observing.

Comment author: r_claypool 26 September 2011 06:46:33PM *  6 points [-]

This is a good opportunity to introduce your friends to LessWrong: "Hey, did you know today is the day Stanislav Petrov saved the world? http://lesswrong.com/lw/jq/926_is_petrov_day/" Chance are, they will click around.

Comment author: gwern 26 September 2011 08:46:10PM 4 points [-]

I actually did submit a link to EY's post to Hacker News, where it seemed to do well: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3039221

Comment author: SilasBarta 26 September 2011 06:31:39PM *  6 points [-]

In honor of Stanislav Petrov, today, I will avoid escalating all potential conflicts.

Edit: Oops, already failed.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 26 September 2011 09:59:04PM 8 points [-]

I don't know whether to upvote you as being absolutely hilarious or downvote you for shameless trolling.

Comment author: SilasBarta 26 September 2011 10:19:30PM 0 points [-]

I realized I failed the goal after I submitted the initial post, so the failure wasn't deliberate.

Comment author: moshez 26 September 2011 06:55:09PM 4 points [-]

Thanks for the reminder! In honor of this, I donated to the "Against Malaria Foundation". Not all of us have the chance to save the world, but every human life saved is precious! :)

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 26 September 2011 04:44:41PM 1 point [-]

Thank you for the reminder.

Comment author: gwern 26 September 2011 03:17:56PM 1 point [-]

The instructions on donating on that page are dead, but they seem to have pointed to the Association of World Citizens, which takes checks by mail for Petrov. Unfortunately, their site is dead and I see little in google for the past month, so I'm not sure it's possible any more to donate to Petrov.