Thank Stanislav Petrov Day

By Sean Carroll | April 15, 2006 7:02 pm

Stanislav Evgrafovich Petrov is arguably the most influential person who ever lived, although I had never heard of him until seeing this post on Cynical-C and this tribute.

Our story unfolds on September 26, 1983. Lieutenant Colonel Petrov was the officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow with the responsibility of alerting Soviet command if there was any indication that the U.S. had launched a nuclear missile strike against the U.S.S.R. The response, of course, would be massive retaliation, and the deaths of many millions of people.

Just after midnight, the computers indicated that an American missile had been launched. Petrov was skeptical, since it wouldn’t make much sense to just launch a single missile. However, soon thereafter, the computer indicated that another four missiles had been launched.

To make a long story short (see Wikipedia for more), Petrov decided that the multiple launches were still a computer error rather than a real attack, and declined to alert his superiors, putting the Soviet Union at risk if he were mistaken. As it turned out, Petrov was right, and he had certainly averted an accidental worldwide catastrophe. But he had disobeyed procedure in the process; his superiors gave him a reprimand and reassigned him to a lower-profile post. The entire incident was kept secret until 1998.

Stanislav Petrov

Forget Easter, here’s a guy who deserves our thanks.

The question is: what would you have done? Presume that you were in an equivalent situtation, responsible for the defense of your country, a mission in which you believed with all your heart. But you have no desire to have millions of people die unnecessarily. How certain would you have to be that an attack was actually occuring before you would set massive retaliation in motion? Fifty-fifty? 100-1? A million to one? Or would you never retaliate, knowing that your decision would lead to hundreds of nuclear warheads raining down on your homeland, and your mortal enemy presumably taking over the world?


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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