This is the text of the Petrov Day ritual I will be using this year. I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet. I hope this provides inspiration for how other people’s Petrov Day rituals can incorporate the coronavirus pandemic.
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.
When I wrote this ritual last year, I said to myself, “I’m really happy with this! Next year I am not going to have to spend the month of September hastily rewriting it on deadline.” So, uh, that worked out well.
Today, there are no candles. Today, there are no songs. Today, instead of meeting in my house, we are meeting over Google Hangouts, and there is going to be at least one technological snafu before it ends– hopefully a less fatal one than Stanislav Petrov’s. And today, instead of taking a moment to reflect on something we far too often forget, we are taking a moment to join in community about something which has affected us all.
In some ways, this ritual may seem unnecessary this year. Most years, we celebrate Petrov Day to remember that, in spite of our great prosperity and the many reasons for hope, we balance on the edge of a knife. This year, there has been no shortage of apocalyptic signs and portents. A pandemic. Massive lockdowns. Protests of long-standing racial injustice which sometimes erupt into riots. Air that’s not safe to breathe. A sepia-toned world under an orange sky. Murder hornets.
The last thing we need is another reminder of the apocalypse.
But Petrov Day is not just about the apocalypse. Petrov Day is about hope.
Petrov Day is not just about the fear that someone someday might press a button and destroy the world. Petrov Day is about remembering the time that someone didn’t.
As always, let us begin at the beginning.
“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)
“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)
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.
The story of Stanislav Petrov is a story of individual heroism, but it is also a story of institutional failure.
Petrov was a hero, but Petrov never should have had to be a hero. Mistake after mistake, piece of reckless negligence after piece of reckless negligence, on the part of both the USA and the USSR, for decades, caused humanity’s fate to be decided by a single finger on a single button.
2020 is the year where we learned that, instead of trusting non-credible sources about epidemiology such as the WHO and the CDC, we should only trust reliable sources, like random people with anime avatars on Twitter.
The level of institutional failure related to coronavirus on every level and from every major institution of the United States is staggering. Prominent journalists told people it made more sense to worry about the flu. Major health organizations lied about whether masks made you less safe. Local governments reopened restaurants even while the coronavirus raged.
It didn’t have to be this way. We could have controlled the pandemic. We didn’t.
This is not the first pandemic that, for assorted political reasons, the US government failed to control.
We have not yet reached the stage of the coronavirus pandemic where we grieve, so I am letting their words stand in for ours.
The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that when a 36-year-old writer is asked on a network news show about the Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community particularly in regard to the Well-Known Preponderance of Homosexuals in the Arts she replies that if you removed all of the homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is generally regarded as American culture you would be pretty much left with ”Let’s Make a Deal.”
The interviewer’s lack of response compels her to conclude that he has no idea what she is talking about and she realizes that soon many of those who do know what she is talking about will be what is generally regarded as dead…
The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that an aspiring little avant-garde movie director approaches a fairly famous actor in a restaurant and attempts to make social hay out of the fact that they met each other at Antonio’s and will undoubtedly see each other at Charles’s and Antonio’s and Charles’s are not parties and Antonio’s and Charles’s are not bars and Antonio’s and Charles’s are not summer houses in chic Tuscan towns– Antonio’s and Charles’s are funerals…
The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that a 36-year-old writer is on the phone with a 38-year-old art director making arrangements to go together to the funeral of a 27-year-old architect and the art director says to the writer, “If you get there first, sit near the front where you usually sit, and save me the seat on the aisle”…
The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that a 36-year-old writer runs into a 34-year-old painter at a party and the painter says to the writer that he’s just back from Los Angeles and he says with some surprise that he had a really good time there and he asks why does she think that happened and says it’s because New York is so boring now that Los Angeles is fun in comparison and that’s true and it’s one reason but the real reason is that they don’t know the people who are dying there…
The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community is that a 36-year-old writer trying to make plans to go out of town flips through her appointment book and hears herself say “well, I have a funeral on Tuesday, lunch with my editor on Wednesday, a memorial service on Thursday, so I guess I could come on Friday, unless of course Robert dies.” — The Impact of Aids on the Artistic Community, Fran Lebowitz, 1987
Unfinished Painting, by Keith Haring, completed a few months before he died of HIV.
Every year, this Petrov day ritual has three readings about the three existential risks that currently pose the greatest threat to humanity: nuclear war, AI, and biological threats. Every year, I have been unhappy about my reading about biological threat. I had a very vivid quote about AI risk, and I had a very vivid quote about nuclear war, but my quote about biorisk was boring.
I don’t think it’s boring this year.
“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 knew sixteen years ago that covid could happen. Coronavirus was a predictable disease that was at the top of biosecurity people’s list of things to worry about. We were warned that we were unprepared. We had time to prepare for it.
Nine hundred and thirty-six thousand, nine hundred and five people are dead because we failed.
Coronavirus was a test run. It was going to kill hundreds of thousands of people; it was never going to wipe out humanity. It was a way to figure out in a lower-stakes way, whether we have the ability to prepare for biological and perhaps other threats.
Think, for a moment, about other subjects for which our response will likely be insufficient.
Pause for a moment of silence.
Many of the people here live in 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
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.
On any given day, about forty percent of Americans mostly or completely isolated themselves from nonhousehold members.
On any given day, about three-quarters of Americans always or very often practiced social distancing.
We cannot let the institutional failures blind us to the success of individual coordination. As weeks of lockdown stretched into months, people– not everyone all of the time, but most people most of the time– continued to be locked down. Corporations shifted all their employees to work-from-home. Parents formed pods to share childcare. People spent hours in stressful negotiations about risk levels with their housemates and friends.
We stopped going to theaters and movies, restaurants and bars, libraries and church, classes and the gym. We went months without seeing our friends. We rescheduled weddings. We held birthday parties over Zoom. We put on masks and spent time together in parks six feet apart.
We made sacrifice after thankless sacrifice, in situations where no one except us would know whether we cheated. In the great prisoner’s dilemma of covid, we pressed “cooperate.”
We never should have been in this position. But we rose to the occasion.
In the early days of the pandemic, people hoarded food, because they were afraid that the supply lines would fall through and we wouldn’t have enough to eat.
But they never did. After the initial hoarding was over, there were occasional shortages of some items, but no one in the United States went hungry because coronavirus had disrupted the factories and ships and trucks that brought them food.
No one person knows how to make a pencil. But even a pandemic can’t stop them from getting made.
Health organizations lied about masks for fear of shortages. But once people knew that masks prevented the coronavirus, hundreds of Etsy stores sprung up with handmade fabric masks to cater to the demand. In the longer term, production of surgical masks rose, and now I can get a pack of fifty on Amazon for fourteen dollars.
In the United States today, there are tens of millions of quiet heroes. Tens of millions of people risked their lives, often for very little money, to make sure we have food and water and electricity, to take care of the elderly and the sick, to take away our garbage and our sewage, to bring us the packages we order online that enable us to stay locked down.
Many of them did not choose to be heroes. Many of them would very much prefer not to be. Heroism is always much more appealing when you’re not the one who might end up in the hospital. But our society is functioning because, in the face of apocalypse, millions of ordinary people got up and went to their ordinary jobs and carried out their ordinary tasks.
Because it is so ordinary, it is often easy to miss courage.
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.
This one evil, the horror from beyond memory, the monster that took 500 million people from this world – was destroyed.
— Jai Dhyani, 500 Million, But Not A Single One More
In 1976, scientific consensus first arose that chlorofluorocarbon pollution depleted atmospheric ozone. If it led to a “hole in the ozone layer”, the effects on human and animal health and food production would likely be severe.
By 1978, when a law was passed in the US banning CFCs in aerosol cans, sales of aerosols had dropped fifty percent.
The hole in the ozone layer was proven to exist in 1985. Just two years later a treaty was written to ban the use of CFCs worldwide, 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)
Today, the hole in the ozone layer is the smallest it’s been since 1982. By 2075, if current trends continue, the Earth’s ozone layer will have repaired itself completely.
Our response was sufficient.
“Everybody lives! Just this once– everybody lives!”– The Doctor
Five hundred million but not a single one more.
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.
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 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