​Today[1] 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.


You can read more about Petrov here

  1. ^

    The original post was written by Eliezer Yudkowsky in 2007. I got permission to cross-post it in full (and am doing this a few hours early, depending on where you are). 

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The post should be updated stating he is deceased.

And the FLI award is probably worth mentioning.

Also maybe forgo the Britney Spears line?

He still lives in our hearts, though
(even though we're not playing Red Button anymore)

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.

Wikipedia disagrees that Petrov's decision was solely based on whether the US would start a war with only 5 missiles, citing in addition the newness of the launch detection system, lack of corroboration from ground radar, and the message passing through verification too quickly:

Petrov later indicated that the influences on his decision included that he had been told a US strike would be all-out, so five missiles seemed an illogical start;[2] that the launch detection system was new and, in his view, not yet wholly trustworthy; that the message passed through 30 layers of verification too quickly;[15] and that ground radar failed to pick up corroborating evidence, even after minutes of delay.[16]

I hope it is an auspicious day to deflect an asteroid for the first time.

Tomorrow(September 26th 2022) is also Rosh Hashanah(the Jewish new year). Appropriate to begin the new year celebrating someone who made it possible.

We should also remember Vasily Arkhipov who was similarly responsible for averting a nuclear attack in 1962.

Worth noting that celebrating this day is one of my very favorite things about EA. Cheers, everyone!