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Thirty Years Ago Today, Stanislav Petrov Saved the World

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On September 26, 1983, the world came very close to nuclear war. Shortly after midnight, alarms inside Serpukhov-15—a bunker in Moscow where the Soviet Union monitored its satellites over the United States—began to go off. The satellites had detected the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile from a base in the United States. Then the system reported that five missiles had been launched and were heading toward the Soviet Union from the U.S.

Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who was on duty that night, had no way of knowing that it was a false alarm: The satellites had mistaken the reflections of sunlight off high-altitude clouds as a missile launch. He had only a few minutes to determine if this was a genuine attack. In that case, Soviet protocol was an immediate counterattack.

It was a tense time in U.S.-Soviet relations. On September 1, the Soviets had shot down a South Korean passenger plane that strayed into its airspace, killing a number of Americans. The United States was performing naval maneuvers near key Soviet military sites. And preparations were underway for Able Archer 83, a 10-day NATO exercise in Western Europe that included a simulated DEFCON 1 nuclear alert. Some Soviets thought Archer was a ruse for war that would mask the preparations for a genuine nuclear strike.

On Second Thought...

Under immense pressure, Petrov ultimately decided that the satellites were wrong. In addition to what he called “a funny feeling in my gut," he had other evidence to suggest reports of an attack were false. Ground-based radar hadn’t detected any incoming missiles, even a few minutes after the satellite alarm (the delay is because ground-based radar can’t see over the horizon). What’s more, Petrov had been told any attack would be a full barrage of missiles, not just five, and he knew that the system had flaws. He reported his findings to his superiors, who did not launch an attack.

Though he was at first praised for his decision, Petrov was later interrogated intensely, and in the end, was not punished or rewarded for being a key part of averting nuclear war and saving the world.

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History
The Dubious Legend of Virgil's Pet Fly
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bust: Hulton Archive, Getty. Fly: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bust: Hulton Archive, Getty. Fly: iStock

Here at Mental Floss, we come across a lot of "facts" that, upon further examination, don’t hold up. Like, did Benjamin Franklin invent the concept of Daylight Saving Time? Not really. (Several ancient cultures seasonally adjusted their clocks, and Franklin only jokingly pondered having people wake up earlier.) The modern version was proposed in 1895 by George Hudson, an entomologist who wanted extra daylight so he could collect more insects.) Do sea cucumbers eat through their anuses? Some, but not all. (One species, P. californicus, uses its backdoor as a second mouth.)

Other facts have been trickier to debunk because the historical record was being snarky or sarcastic: Was Amerigo Vespucci, for whom America is likely named, a measly pickle merchant? (Ralph Waldo Emerson said so, but he was probably being snide.) Did people in 16th century France wipe their butts with geese? A quotation from François Rabelais's comic series of novels Gargantua and Pantagruel has been confused as evidence, but Rabelais was a bawdy satirist.

Yet one of our favorite dubious fun facts—a Trojan Horse that has snuck into a handful of trivia books—concerns Virgil, the Roman poet and author of the Aeneid. The story goes that Virgil had a pet housefly, and when the insect died, Virgil spent 800,000 sesterces—nearly all of his net worth—for an extravagant funeral. Celebrities swarmed the poet’s home. Professional mourners wailed. An orchestra performed a lament. Virgil drafted verses to celebrate the fly’s memory. After the service, the bug’s body was ceremoniously deposited in a mausoleum the poet had built on his estate.

Virgil wasn’t losing it: It was all a scheme to keep the government’s fingers off his land. At the time (and this part is true), Rome was seizing private property and awarding it to war veterans. According to legend, Virgil knew the government couldn’t touch his property if his estate contained a tomb, so he quickly built a mausoleum, found an arthropod occupant, and rescued his house.

It’s a great story! It’s also unsubstantiated. None of Virgil’s contemporaries mention the poet throwing a lavish funeral—especially one for a housefly. The story probably has roots in an old poem that’s been (incorrectly) attributed to the poet called "The Culex." In the poem, a fly (or, depending on your translation, a spider or gnat) wakes up a man just as a snake is lurking nearby. The man kills both the insect and serpent, but soon regrets killing his winged protector. He builds the bug a marble headstone with this epitaph:

O Tiny gnat, the keeper of the flocks
Doth pay to thee, deserving such a thing
The duty of a ceremonial tomb
In payment for the gift of life to him.

Most scholars don’t believe that Virgil wrote "The Culex." But as Sara P. Muskat, a research assistant at the University of Pittsburgh during the 1930s, wrote in a short essay, Virgil was regularly the subject of this kind of mythmaking. Shortly after his death, people in his hometown of Naples alleged he was the founder of the city. (He wasn’t.) Others claimed he had been the city’s governor. (He hadn’t). By the Middle Ages, Virgil was depicted as a magician or dark wizard who could communicate with the dead. (He couldn't.)

“There is then no evidence, ancient or medieval, that I can find to support the story that Vergil had a pet fly and gave it an elaborate funeral,” Muskat writes. “It seems quite inconsistent with Vergil’s usual behavior, and may indicate that the period of myth-making about Vergil has not yet closed.”

Like our friendly imaginary fly, perhaps it’s time for this factoid to bite the dust, too.

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Queen Anne of Brittany's Heart Stolen From French Museum
Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images
Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images

Bringing new meaning to the idea of stealing someone's heart, thieves in France made off with a 16th-century gold relic containing the once-beating organ of Anne of Brittany, the only woman to ever have been twice crowned the queen of France.

Over the weekend, burglars smashed a window of the Thomas-Dobrée museum in Nantes and lifted the the six-inch case from its display, The Telegraph reports.

Anne was crowned queen when she was just 12 years old after marrying Charles VIII of France in 1491. After his death in 1498, she married Louis XII and once again ascended the throne, where she stayed until her death at age 36. Although her body was buried at the Basilica of Saint Denis, she requested that her heart be kept alongside her parents’ tomb in Brittany.

“The thieves attacked our common heritage and stole an item of inestimable value," Philippe Grosvalet, president of the Loire-Atlantique department, which owns the museum, told The Telegraph. "Much more than a symbol, the case containing the heart of Anne of Brittany belongs to our history.”

The gold relic was saved from being melted down after the French Revolution, and it has been kept safe at the Thomas-Dobrée museum for more than 130 years. The case contains an inscription in old French, which translates to: “In this small vessel of pure, fine gold rests the greatest heart of any woman in the world.”

This practice of burying the heart apart from the rest of the body was not entirely uncommon among European aristocrats in the Middle Ages. The hearts of both Richard I and Anne Boleyn were kept in lead boxes, and the hearts of 22 former popes are stored in marble urns at Rome's Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi church.

It's also far from the only instance of relic theft. In a slightly more bizarre case, fragments of the brain of John Bosco, a 19th century Roman Catholic priest, were contained in a reliquary at his basilica in Castelnuovo, central Italy, until they were snatched by a thief in 2017. The reliquary was ultimately recovered by police from the suspect’s kitchen cupboard.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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