This is the ritual script I used for last year’s Petrov Day.

This script is different from other scripts because it’s more focused: instead of going through the whole history of humanity, it begins with the Industrial Revolution. It also has songs, both lighthearted (X Days of X Risk, We Will All Go Together When We Go) and somber (Do You Hear What I Hear, We Will Become Silhouettes). I selected relatively well-known songs with catchy tunes, so it should be usable with minimal prep.

Candles are not required. It is recommended that you purchase a large red button and record a horrible squawking noise on it. If the button is pressed, all people must leave the party immediately. (This is an extremely fun game to play if you have three toddlers at your ritual.)

I was pretty happy with this version and planned for it to be my final version of Petrov Day, but given the current situation I think I’m going to have to do some major rewrites.

This day, September 26, is Petrov Day. In 1983, the story of humanity nearly ended. We’re gathered here to remember that moment, and others like it. But to really feel the magnitude of those events, we need to visit them in their proper context. Let us begin at the beginning.

By Andrew Eigel

Hands chip the flint, light the fire, skin the kill
Feet move the tribe track the herd with a will
Mankind struggles in the cellar of history
Time to settle down, time to grow, time to breed

Plow tills the soil, plants the seed, pray for rain
Scythe reaps the wheat, to the mill, to grind the grain
Towns and cities spread to empire overnight
Hands keep building as we chant the ancient rite

Coal heats the steam, push the piston, turns the wheel
Cogs spin the wool, drives the horses made of steel
Lightning harnessed does our will and lights the dark
Keep rising higher, set our goal, hit the mark.

Crawl out of the mud,
Ongoing but slow,
For the path that is easy
Ain’t the one that lets us grow!

Light to push the sails, read the data, cities glow
Hands type the keys, click the mouse, out we go!
Our voices carry round the world and into space
Send us out to colonize another place¸

Hands make the tools, build the fire, plant the grain.
Feet track the herd, build a world, begin again.

“By the aid of a telescope any one may behold this in a manner which so distinctly appeals to the senses that all the disputes which have tormented philosophers through so many ages are exploded at once by the indisputable evidence of our eyes, and we are freed from wordy disputes upon this subject, for the Galaxy is nothing else but a mass of innumerable stars planted together in clusters.” — Galileo, The Starry Messenger (1610)

“Matters that vexed the minds of ancient seers,
And for our learned doctors often led
To loud and vain contention, now are seen
In reason’s light, the clouds of ignorance
Dispelled at last by science. Those on whom
Delusion cast its gloomy pall of doubt,
Upborne now on the wings that genius lends,
May penetrate the mansions of the gods
And scale the heights of heaven. O mortal men,
Arise! And, casting off your earthly cares,
Learn ye the potency of heaven-born mind,
Its thought and life far from the herd withdrawn!”
— Edmund Halley, preface to Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687)

“By calculations similar to these may be determined universally, what expectations are warranted by any experiments, according to the different number of times in which they have succeeded and failed; or what should be thought of the probability that any particular cause in nature, with which we have any acquaintance, will or will not, in any single trial, produce an effect that has been conjoined with it.” — Rev. Thomas Bayes, An Essay towards solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances (1763)

“I was thinking upon the engine at the time, and had gone as far as the herd’s house, when the idea came into my mind that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel it would rush into it, and might be there condensed without cooling the cylinder. I then saw that I must get rid of the condensed steam and injection-water if I used a jet as in Newcomen’s engine. Two ways of doing this occurred to me. … I had not walked farther than the golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.” — James Watt (1765)

“I saw in a dream a table where all elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper, only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.” — Dmitri Mendeleev (1864)

“I then shouted into the mouthpiece the following sentence: Mr. Watson, Come here, I want to see you. To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said. I asked him to repeat the words. He answered, “You said, Mr. Watson come here I want to see you.”” — Alexander Graham Bell (1876)

“I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed 3,000 different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently likely to be true. Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory. My chief difficulty was in constructing the carbon filament. … Every quarter of the globe was ransacked by my agents, and all sorts of the queerest materials used, until finally the shred of bamboo, now utilized by us, was settled upon.” — Thomas Edison (1890)

Understanding the world gave us the power to change it.

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen invented the first commercially successful steam engine. It was the first significant power source other than wind, water, and life. In 1769, James Watt designed a more efficient steam engine, paving the way for its use in trains, steamboats, and factories. The Industrial Revolution began.

“Modern economic growth is the increase of income per head by a factor of 15 or 20 since the 18th century in places like Britain—and a factor of 8.5 worldwide even including the places that have not had the luck or skill to let it happen fully. It is certainly the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants, perhaps the most important since the invention of language.” —Deirdre McCloskey (2004)

“If we continually sample from the urn of possible technological discoveries before implementing effective means of global coordination, surveillance, and/or restriction of potentially hazardous information, then we risk eventually drawing a black ball: an easy-to-make intervention that causes extremely widespread harm and against which effective defense is infeasible” — Nick Bostrom (2013)

X Days of X Risk
By Ray Arnold

On the first day of X-Risk I suddenly could see:
The end of humanity

On the second day of X-Risk I suddenly could see
Nuclear War!
And the end of humanity

On the third day of X-Risk I suddenly could see
Pandemic Plagues
Nuclear War
And the end of humanity

On the fourth day of X-Risk I suddenly could see
Pandemic Plagues
Nuclear War
And the end of humanity

On the fifth day of X-Risk I suddenly could see
Unfriendly AI…
Pandemic Plagues
Nuclear War
And the end of humanity

On the sixth day of X-Risk I suddenly could see
One nanite making
Two nanites making
Four nanites making
Eight nanites making
Sixteen nanites making
Thirty-two nanites making
Sixty-four nanites making
A hundred twenty eight nanites making
[Deep breath]
Unfriendly AI…
Pandemic Plagues
Nuclear War
And the end of humanity

We Will All Go Together When We Go
By Tom Lehrer

When you attend a funeral
It is sad to think that sooner o’
Later those you love will do the same for you
And you may have thought it tragic
Not to mention other adjec-
Tives, to think of all the weeping they will do
(But don’t you worry.)
No more ashes, no more sackcloth
And an armband made of black cloth
Will some day never more adorn a sleeve
For if the bomb that drops on you
Gets your friends and neighbors too
There’ll be nobody left behind to grieve

And we will all go together when we go
What a comforting fact that is to know
Universal bereavement
An inspiring achievement
Yes, we all will go together when we go

We will all go together when we go
All suffuse with an incandescent glow
No one will have the endurance
To collect on his insurance
Lloyd’s of London will be loaded when they go

Oh we will all fry together when we fry
We’ll be french fried potatoes by and by
There will be no more misery
When the world is our rotisserie
Yes, we will all fry together when we fry

And we will all bake together when we bake
There’ll be nobody present at the wake
With complete participation
In that grand incineration
Nearly three billion hunks of well-done steak

Oh we will all char together when we char
And let there be no moaning of the bar
Just sing out a Te Deum
When you see that I.C.B.M.
And the party will be come-as-you-are.

Oh we will all burn together when we burn
There’ll be no need to stand and wait your turn
When it’s time for the fallout
And Saint Peter calls us all out
We’ll just drop our agendas and adjourn

And we will all go together when we go
Ev’ry Hottenhot an’ ev’ry Eskimo
When the air becomes uranious
And we will all go simultaneous
Yes we all will go together
When we all go together
Yes, we all will go together when we go

“Moore’s Law of Mad Science: Every 18 months, the IQ
required to destroy the world drops by 1 point.”
— Source unknown (2005)

The story of how humanity gained the ability to destroy itself begins a little more than a third of the way through the twentieth century.

Starting in 1939 and continuing until 1945, World War II killed about 60 million people. Seventeen million people died in the Holocaust, including a third of the world’s Jews. The Japanese government perpetrated the Nanking Massacre, the Bataan Death March, the Manila Massacre, and many other atrocities.

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” — Hannah Arendt

And so the world’s greatest minds believed they had no choice. They had to gather in secret, and create the atomic bomb – a weapon to destroy cities, or the whole world.

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” — J. Robert Oppenheimer

“I shall write peace upon your wings, and you shall fly around the world so that children will no longer have to die this way.” — Sadako Sasaki, victim of the bombing at Hiroshima

Pause for a moment of silence.

In 1962, the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union reached a crisis. US destroyers under orders to enforce a naval quarantine off Cuba did not know that the submarines the Soviets had sent to protect their ships were carrying nuclear weapons. So the Americans began firing depth charges to force the submarines to the surface, a move the Soviets on board interpreted as the start of World War III.

“[Savitsky, a submarine captain,] summoned the officer who was assigned to the nuclear torpedo, and ordered him to assemble it to battle readiness. ‘Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing summersaults here’ – screamed agitated [Savitsky], justifying his order. ‘We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet’. But we did not fire the nuclear torpedo – Savitsky was able to rein in his wrath. After consulting with Second Captain Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov and his deputy political officer Ivan Semenovich Maslennikov, he made the decision to come to the surface.” — Vadim Orlov (2007)

Soldiers were not the only ones involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A musician, Noel Regney, had been asked by his producer to write a Christmas song. Progress was slow, in part because both he and the producer were constantly listening to the radio to see if they, along with millions of other people, were about to die.

When he was walking home from the studio, Regney encountered two babies in strollers. The babies saw each other and smiled.

The babies didn’t know about Communism and capitalism, the US and the USSR, any of the reasons that we were posing humanity on the verge of destruction. All the babies knew is that seeing another human face made them happy.

Inspired, Regney wrote a song that became a Christmas classic.

Do You Hear What I Hear?
By Noel Regney

Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see
A star, a star
Dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear
A song, a song
High above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know
In your palace wall mighty king
Do you know what I know
A child, a child
Shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say
The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light

We now reach the historical event that is today’s namesake: the Petrov incident. On September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at the Oko nuclear early warning system.

“An alarm at the command and control post went off with red lights blinking on the terminal. It was a nasty shock. Everyone jumped from their seats, looking at me. What could I do? There was an operations procedure that I had written myself. We did what we had to do. We checked the operation of all systems – on 30 levels, one after another. Reports kept coming in: All is correct; the probability factor is two. … The highest.” — Stanislav Petrov

“I imagined if I’d assume the responsibility for unleashing the third World War – and I said, no, I wouldn’t. … I always thought of it. Whenever I came on duty, I always refreshed it in my memory.” — Stanislav Petrov

Had he followed procedure, and reported up the chain of command that the Americans had launched missiles, this could have set off a nuclear war. So instead of telling his superiors what the system was saying, Petrov told his superiors that it was a false alarm – despite not really knowing this was the case.

At the time, he received no award. The incident embarrassed his superiors and the scientists responsible for the system, so if he had been rewarded, they would have to be punished. (He received the International Peace Price thirty years later, in 2013.)

Things eventually calmed down. The Soviet Union dissolved. Safeguards were put on most of the bombs, to prevent the risk of accidental (or deliberate but unauthorized) detonation.

We Will Become Silhouettes
By The Postal Service

I’ve got a cupboard with cans of food
Filtered water and pictures of you
And I’m not coming out until this is all over
And I’m looking through the glass
Where the light bends at the cracks
And I’m screaming at the top of my lungs
Pretending the echoes belong to someone
Someone I used to know

And we become
Silhouettes when our bodies finally go

I wanted to walk through the empty streets
And feel something constant under my feet
But all the news reports recommended that I stay indoors
Because the air outside will make
Our cells divide at an alarming rate
Until our shells simply cannot hold
All our inside’s in and that’s when we’ll explode
And it won’t be a pretty sight

And we’ll become
Silhouettes when our bodies finally go
And we’ll become
Silhouettes when our bodies finally go
And we’ll become
Silhouettes when our bodies finally go
And we’ll become
Silhouettes when our bodies finally go

We meet today outside the city of San Francisco. This is a particularly appropriate place, given our next topic, as San Francisco is the place where two of the most iconic institutions related to human coordination were founded: the United Nations and Starfleet.

It is easy to think of human coordination as a thing that happens between governments and big institutions, something extraordinarily difficult and rare. As rationalists, we often think about coordination problems: about defection on Prisoner’s Dilemmas, the tragedy of the commons, inadequate equilibria.

But now we will think about the many times when we succeed.

I am a lead pencil…

My cedar receives six coats of lacquer. Do you know all the ingredients of lacquer? Who would think that the growers of castor beans and the refiners of castor oil are a part of it? They are. Why, even the processes by which the lacquer is made a beautiful yellow involve the skills of more persons than one can enumerate!

Observe the labeling. That’s a film formed by applying heat to carbon black mixed with resins. How do you make resins and what, pray, is carbon black?

My bit of metal—the ferrule—is brass. Think of all the persons who mine zinc and copper and those who have the skills to make shiny sheet brass from these products of nature. Those black rings on my ferrule are black nickel. What is black nickel and how is it applied? The complete story of why the center of my ferrule has no black nickel on it would take pages to explain…

Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me?

Leonard Read, I, Pencil

An idea began to take hold: Perhaps the ancient god could be killed.

A whisper became a voice; a voice became a call; a call became a battle cry, sweeping across villages, cities, nations. Humanity began to cooperate, spreading the protective power across the globe, dispatching masters of the craft to protect whole populations. People who had once been sworn enemies joined in common cause for this one battle. Governments mandated that all citizens protect themselves, for giving the ancient enemy a single life would put millions in danger.

And, inch by inch, humanity drove its enemy back. Fewer friends wept; Fewer neighbors were crippled; Fewer parents had to bury their children…

35 years ago, on December 9th, 1979, humanity declared victory.

Jai Dhyani, 500 Million, But Not A Single One More

In 1985, not long after Petrov’s fateful decision, Joe Farman, Brian Gardiner, and Jonathan Shanklin made a disturbing discovery. The ozone layer, the part of our atmosphere that filters out most UV radiation, was disappearing due to chlorofluorocarbon pollution. Just two years later a treaty was written to ban the use of CFCs, and two years after that, in 1989, it was in effect. As of today, every country in the United Nations has ratified the Montreal protocol.

“The hole in the ozone layer is a kind of skywriting. At first it seemed to spell out our continuing complacency before a witch’s brew of deadly perils. But perhaps it really tells of a newfound talent to work together to protect the global environment.” — Carl Sagan (1998)

It is often easy to miss the signs of a solved coordination problem.

It is easy to miss the rivers that don’t catch on fire, the fish species on our plate that aren’t extinct, the medical waste that doesn’t wash up on a beach, the ozone layer that isn’t destroyed. It is easy to forget about smallpox and hookworm, polio and congenital iodine deficiency syndrome. It is easy to get used to pencils and laptop computers, blueberries and Avengers: Endgame, without thinking about the extraordinary human effort that brings these items into being.

Coordination Forever
Mostly by Pete Seeger with edits by Ozy Brennan; to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic

When we all shall work together
Though it seems our day is done
There can be no power greater
Anywhere beneath the sun
Yet what force on earth is weaker
Than the feeble strength of one?
But our union makes us strong

It is we who plowed the prairies
Built the cities where they trade
Dug the mines and built the workshops
Endless miles of railroad laid
Now we stand afraid and desperate
Mid the wonders we have made
But our union makes us strong

In our hands is placed a power
Truly wond’rous to behold
Greater than the might of atoms
Magnified a thousand-fold
We can bring to birth a new world
From the seedlings of the old
For our union makes us strong

It is easy to get used to the absence of epidemics, computers that do more-or-less what we want them to, a sky that doesn’t light up with a mushroom cloud.

We can coordinate to solve problems. Game theory was developed during the Cold War and applied to the problem of nuclear war. By the logic of mutually assured destruction, if either participant pressed the button, both would perish. We came close to war, but ultimately both side cooperated in an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma with the highest possible stakes.

“What we do have the power to affect (to what extent depends on how we define “we”) is the rate of development of various technologies and potentially the sequence in which feasible technologies are developed and implemented. Our focus should be on what I want to call differential technological development: trying to retard the implementation of dangerous technologies and accelerate implementation of beneficial technologies, especially those that ameliorate the hazards posed by other technologies.” — Nick Bostrom (2002)

“An unFriendly AI with molecular nanotechnology (or other rapid infrastructure) need not bother with marching robot armies or blackmail or subtle economic coercion. The unFriendly AI has the ability to repattern all matter in the solar system according to its optimization target. This is fatal for us if the AI does not choose specifically according to the criterion of how this transformation affects existing patterns such as biology and people. The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else. The AI runs on a different timescale than you do; by the time your neurons finish thinking the words “I should do something” you have already lost.” — Eliezer Yudkowsky, Artificial Intelligence as a Positive and Negative Factor in Global Risk (2006)

“The biological threat carries with it the possibility of millions of fatalities and billions of dollars in economic losses. The federal government has acknowledged the seriousness of this threat and provided billions in funding for a wide spectrum of activities across many departments and agencies to meet it. These efforts demonstrate recognition of the problem and a distributed attempt to find solutions. Still, the Nation does not afford the biological threat the same level of attention as it does other threats: There is no centralized leader for biodefense. There is no comprehensive national strategic plan for biodefense. There is no all-inclusive dedicated budget for biodefense…

The biological threat has not abated. At some point, we will likely be attacked with a biological weapon, and will certainly be subjected to deadly naturally occurring infectious diseases and accidental exposures, for which our response will likely be insufficient.” — Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense (2004)

“We might argue whether the probability of nuclear war per year was high or low. But it would make no real difference. If the probability is 10 percent per year, then we expect the holocaust to come in about 10 years. If it is 1 percent per year, then we expect it in about 100 years.

The lower probability per year changes the time frame until we expect civilization to be destroyed, but it does not change the inevitability of the ruin. In either scenario, nuclear war is [very nearly] 100 percent certain to occur.

This pair of examples brings out a critically important point. Our only survival strategy is to continuously reduce the probability, driving it ever closer to zero. In contrast, our current policies are like repeatedly playing Russian roulette with more and more bullets in the chambers.

We have pulled the trigger in this macabre game more often than is imagined. Each action on our current path has some chance of triggering the final global war. And if we keep pulling the trigger, the gun will inevitably go off. Each “small” war – in Iran, or Iraq, or Vietnam, or Afghanistan – is pulling the trigger; each threat of the use of violence – as in the Cuban missile crisis – is pulling the trigger; each day that goes by in which a missile or computer can fail is pulling the trigger.

The only way to survive Russian roulette is to stop playing. The only way to survive nuclear roulette is to move beyond war in the same sense that the civilized world has moved beyond human sacrifice and slavery.

When it was merely moral and desirable, it might have been impossible to beat swords into plowshares. Today, it is necessary for survival.” Hellman (1985)

Today, nuclear war has been joined by more black balls from the technological urn, and still more will be drawn.

The power of human coordination was just barely enough to allow civilization to survive the Cold War. It remains to be seen whether it will be enough for the next challenges we face.

Read three paragraphs, then pass to the next person.

There is a button. Bright red.

The button is on a phone.

There is a screen.

There are rules.

Everyone knows them.

You look at the screen again. It still shows one Minuteman-III intercontinental ballistic missile bearing down on your country. You remember that American Minutemen ICBMs carry three warheads of up to 500 kilotons each. You think of your family.

You’re a just a lieutenant colonel. You’re a software engineer. This was supposed to be a boring post. It’s 12:30 am and this is just another night shift. Two minutes ago your biggest decision was whether to shave tonight or tomorrow. THIS SHOULD NOT BE YOUR DECISION TO MAKE.

Time refuses to stop.

You think about the software. The satellites. Could it be a glitch?

Three weeks ago your government shot down a Korean civilian airliner and no one knows why. The United States is in an anti-Soviet fervor. Maybe Reagan really is that crazy. Maybe one missile got launched early by accident. Maybe you only have a short window before they realize their mistake. Every second you wait, the opportunity to strike back and stop the missiles before they destroy your home slips further away.

But…one? How could there be only one? The Americans aren’t that incompetent. A real attack would be hundreds, thousands of missiles. Even if they accidentally fired one early, they wouldn’t wait this long to fire the rest.

You breathe. Oko is about ten years old now – there was bound to be a glitch sooner or later. There will be no war. Everything is fine.


Four more missiles appear on the screen, all heading towards your homeland. Fifteen warheads. Seven megatons. Are they launching in waves?

You think about your career. You think about duty. You know exactly what you are supposed to do in this situation.

The button waits.

Even if it is a glitch, disobeying orders will ruin any chance of promotion. You might need to leave the army. You don’t know where else you could go. You wouldn’t know what to do when you got up in the morning.

Five missiles. Still doesn’t make sense. Could be a glitch. Americans still aren’t that dumb, to make the same mistake twice.

You’re not sure. But you have your orders. Your job is not to make decisions. Your job is to press the button and let someone else make the decision.

You know that your government’s stated policy is “launch on warning”.

You look at the glowing warning on the screen again.

Not your decision – except you know what the decision will be.

You think about how to deal with life after the army. You think about your home in ruins. You think about your cousins, screaming. Why are these thoughts even in the same mind at the same time? No sane world would allow that.

You do not live in a sane world.

Five lights, glowing in the night.

One button.

Five billion people.

All your comrades know what the right thing to do here is. Everyone knows. It’s simple.

There are procedures in place.

There are children in bed.

The world balances on a stupid, cheap, red plastic button.

Could be a glitch.

Five missiles wouldn’t destroy the entire Soviet Union. In strategic terms, it would be barely a blip.

You imagine thousands of mothers crying. A blip.

You imagine the world screaming in its final hours, a cacophony of hopeless wishes echoing until they’re silenced. “If only…!”

You decide.

You will not play your assigned role in the end of the world. You will probably be scorned, laughed at, even if you’re right. If you’re wrong, you will be the hapless fool who let his countrymen burn out of cowardice.

You don’t press the button.

The world doesn’t end that night.

It turns out to have been a false alarm – sunlight glinting off clouds. The sunlight that almost ended the world.

The questioning and interrogations go on for weeks. Endless paperwork, and you’re reprimanded whenever you miss a single slip. You receive no reward. The failure of the early warning system is embarrassing, and to recognize that you were right to distrust it is to invite scrutiny and blame. You are quietly reassigned to a post of absolutely no importance where you can’t make any trouble. With no hope of advancing your career, you retire from the army.

Sometimes you still think about that night. You can’t talk about it with anyone. No one knows that you…did nothing.

You suffer a nervous breakdown for a while, but you get better.

You wonder if you’ll ever be able to save up to buy a vacuum cleaner.

The world keeps going. For now.

— Jai Dhyani, There Is A Button