9/26 is Petrov Day

by Eliezer Yudkowsky1 min read26th Sep 200766 comments


Petrov Day

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.


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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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

"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.

Given that he would be dead otherwise (and the strong human survival drive) I don't see how the incentives are perverse.

I mean to make the incentives positive for pushing the button requires some really strong conditioning or torture threats.

Saying "Given that he would be dead otherwise" carries the implication "if doing X leaves you dead, and you value your own existence, you should not do X", which is false in the case of precommitment. Being the type of person who is willing to kill yourself may increase your chance of staying alive, even though you are worse off when looking only at the branch where you got unlucky and the precommitment forced you to follow through.

"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.

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.

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

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


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

"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.

"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.

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."

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

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.

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".

"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.

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

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.

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.

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?

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Hat-tip too to Vasili Arkhipov.

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

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

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 ?

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.

"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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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).

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


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

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

...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.

Bump for this year's Petrov Day

On the topic of war (nuclear or otherwise), it has been mentioned elsewhere in LW, though I cant seem to remember, that one strategy often employed by politicians advocating war, is to "dehumanise" people on "the other side". The first example that comes to mind, is the slang "Gook".

I don't know whether there has been any social science experiment conducted, that demonstrates the willingness of people to pull the trigger/ flip the switch/ pull the plug more willingly, the less the victim/subject (who should be at the receiving end of the consequences flowing from the participants actions) resembles a human being.

In slightly more vivid terms:

Group 1 (Experimental group) is shown six pictures(ostensibly representing real-life creatures) - 3 photos of people and 3 photos of melmacians#ALF_character) and are told they get paid 10$ for every time they press a button that would make a picture and/or the subject of the picture explode.

Group 2 (Control group) is shown the same set of photos and have the same incentives, with the difference that they are asked to interact with melmacians and/or are shown videos melmacians and their antics and have a good laugh/cry about it.

My prediction is that the experimental group would be far more likely to pull the trigger. I know this sounds similar to the experiment in which people press a button to administer electric shocks (that experiment establishes people's behavior in the face of authority), but I propose this experiment to observe what people behave like when they are armed with the heuristic of a human face.

Isn't it likely that the spread of television and the internet that characterized globalization in the last three (or so) decades, has had a highly beneficial but hidden side effect of humanizing people living across the globe?

It certainly hasn't wiped out conflict and I'm not an expert in world affairs, but I suspect there might be a co-relation between countries experiencing a high amount of militant activity and the lack of global programming that the average citizen in those countries face.

In the US is possible to vote for politicians that favor deploying the military without pulling the trigger yourself.

Soldiers in turn get special training to decondition them and make them pull the trigger.

People often hate familiar outsiders more than unfamiliar outsiders, because outsiders who are more familiar are seen as more of a threat to their way of life.

I think any effect you may see would probably be in the opposite direction: hatred causes lack of global programming (because cultures that hate others want to censor) rather than global programming causing lack of hatred.

Fair enough. I did have in mind a kind of self-fulfilling cycle, anyways.

I was just thinking that the most intense hatred would probably be most concentrated among a few people in power. They then censor global programming so that familiarity is not built up among the masses. This serves two purposes, one that they can justify themselves as leaders as well as ensuring that they continue to remain in power. It's sort of like the chicken and the egg problem.

Note: There is now a Petrov day ritual, for small groups (8 or less) want a quiet, solemn reflection.


Does anyone know what Petrov's address is, or any way to reach him?

The Madison, WI effective altruism group would like to write him thank-you letters for our next meetup this Petrov Day.

Stanislav Yevgrafovich died 4 month ago, here's NPR article. I wish I knew that he lived near me a little bit sooner.