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The 10,000-Year Geneaology of Myths

Posted on Wednesday, February 8th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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The “Shaft Scene” from the Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, France.

The “Shaft Scene” from the Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, France.

ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS SCENES in the Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, France depicts a confrontation between a man and a bison. The bison appears fixed in place, stabbed by a spear. The man has a bird’s head and is lying prone on the ground. Scholars have long puzzled over the pictograph’s meaning, as the narrative scene it depicts is one of the most complex yet discovered in Paleolithic art.

To understand what is going on in these scenes, some scholars have started to re-examine myths passed down through oral traditions, which some evidence suggest may be far older than previously thought. Myths still hold relevance today by allowing us to frame our actions at a civilizational level as part of a larger story, something that we hope to be able to accomplish with the idea of the “Long Now.”

Historian Julien d’Huy recently proposed an intriguing hypothesis[subscription required]: the cave painting of the man & bison could be telling the tale of the Cosmic Hunt, a myth that has surfaced with the same basic story structure in cultures across the world, from the Chukchi of Siberia to the Iroquois of the Northeastern United States. D’Huy uses comparative mythology combined with new computational modeling technologies to reconstruct a version of the myth that predates humans’ migration across the Bering Strait. If d’Huy is correct, the Lascaux painting would be one of the earliest depictions of the myth, dating back an estimated 20,000 years ago.

The Greek telling of the Cosmic Hunt is likely most familiar to today’s audiences. It recounts how the Gods transformed the chaste and beautiful Callisto into a bear, and later, into the constellation Ursa Major. D’Huy suggests that in the Lascaux painting, the bison isn’t fixed in place because it has been killed, as many experts have proposed, but because it is a constellation.

Comparative mythologists have spilled much ink over how myths like Cosmic Hunt can recur in civilizations separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years with many aspects of their stories intact. D’huy’s analysis is based off the work of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who posited that these myths are similar because they have a common origin. Levi-Strauss traced the evolution of myths by applying the same techniques that linguists used to trace the evolution of words. D’Huy provides new evidence for this approach by borrowing recently developed computational statistical tools from evolutionary biology.  The method, called phylogenetic analysis, constructs a family tree of a myth’s discrete elements, or “mythemes,” and its evolution over time:

Mythical stories are excellent targets for such analysis because, like biological species, they evolve gradually, with new parts of a core story added and others lost over time as it spreads from region to region.  […] Like genes, mythemes are heritable characteristics of “species” of stories, which pass from one generation to the next and change slowly.

A phylogenetic tree of the Cosmic Hunt shows its evolution over time

This new evidence suggests that the Cosmic Hunt has followed the migration of humans across the world. The Cosmic Hunt’s phylogenetic tree shows that the myth arrived in the Americas at different times over the course of several millennia:

One branch of the tree connects Greek and Algonquin versions of the myth. Another branch indicates passage through the Bering Strait, which then continued into Eskimo country and to the northeastern Americas, possibly in two different waves. Other branches suggest that some versions of the myth spread later than the others from Asia toward Africa and the Americas.

Myths may evolve gradually like biological species, but can also be subject to the same sudden bursts of evolutionary change, or punctuated equilibrium. Two structurally similar myths can diverge rapidly, d’Huy found, because of “migration bottlenecks, challenges from rival populations, or new environmental and cultural inputs.”

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman, in his talk “How Stories Last” at Long Now in 02015, imagined stories in similarly biological terms—as living things that evolve over time and across mediums. The ones that persist are the ones that outcompete other stories by changing:

Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes… Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce — they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.

Throughout human history, myths functioned to transmit important cultural information from generation to generation about shared beliefs and knowledge. “They teach us how the world is put together,” said Gaiman, “and the rules of living in the world.” If the information isn’t clothed in a compelling narrative garb—a tale of unrequited love, say, or a cunning escape from powerful monsters— the story won’t last, and the shared knowledge dies along with it. The stories that last “come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and want them to propagate,” said Gaiman.

Sometimes, these stories serve as warnings to future generations about calamitous events. Along Australia’s south coast, a myth persists in an aboriginal community about an enraged ancestor called Ngurunderi who chased his wives on foot to what is today known as Kangaroo Island. In his anger, Ngurunderi made the sea levels rise and turned his wives into rocks.

Kangaroo Island, Australia

Linguist Nicholas Reid and geologist Patrick Nunn believe this myth refers to a shift in sea levels that occurred thousands of years ago. Through scientifically reconstructing prehistoric sea levels, Reid and Nunn dated the myth to 9,800 to 10,650 years ago, when a post-glacial event caused sea levels to rise 100 feet and submerged the land bridge to Kangaroo Island.

“It’s quite gobsmacking to think that a story could be told for 10,000 years,” Reid said. “It’s almost unimaginable that people would transmit stories about things like islands that are currently underwater accurately across 400 generations.”

Gaiman thinks that this process of transmitting stories is what fundamentally allows humanity to advance:

Without the mass of human knowledge accumulated over millennia to buoy us up, we are in big trouble; with it, we are warm, fed, we have popcorn, we are sitting in comfortable seats, and we are capable of arguing with each other about really stupid things on the internet.

Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows, in his talk “Civilization’s Infrastructure” at Long Now in 02015, said such stories remain essential today. In Fallows’ view, effective infrastructure is what enables civilizations to thrive. Some of America’s most ambitious infrastructure projects, such as the expansion of railroads across the continent, or landing on the moon, were spurred by stories like Manifest Destiny and the Space Race. Such myths inspired Americans to look past their own immediate financial interests and time horizons to commit to something beyond themselves. They fostered, in short, long-term thinking.

James Fallows, left, speaking with Stewart Brand at Long Now

For Fallows, the reason Americans haven’t taken on grand and necessary projects of infrastructural renewal in recent times is because they struggle to take the long view. In Fallows’ eyes, there’s a lot to be optimistic about, and a great story to be told:

The story is an America that is not in its final throes, but is going through the latest version in its reinvention in which all the things that are dire now can be, if not solved, addressed and buffered by individual talents across the country but also by the exceptional tools that the tech industry is creating. There’s a different story we can tell which includes the bad parts but also —as most of our political discussion does not—includes the promising things that are beginning too.

A view of the underground site of The Clock looking up at the spiral stairs currently being cut

When Danny Hillis proposed building a 10,000 year clock, he wanted to create a myth that stood the test of time. Writing in 01998, Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand noted the trend of short-term thinking taking hold in civilization, and proposed the myth of the Clock of the Long Now:

Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed-some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where ‘long-term’ is measured at least in centuries. Long Now proposes both a mechanism and a myth.

Edge Question 02017

Posted on Friday, January 20th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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Spiders 2013 by Katinka Matson

It’s been an annual tradition since 01998: with a new year comes a new Edge question.

Every January, John Brockman presents the members of his online salon with a question that elicits discussion about some of the biggest intellectual and scientific issues of our time. Previous iterations have included prompts such as “What should we be worried about?” or  “What do you think about machines that think?” The essay responses – in excess of a hundred each year – offer a wealth of insight into the direction of today’s cultural forces, scientific innovations, and global trends.

This year, Brockman asks:

What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?

The extensive collection of answers includes contributions by several Long Now Board members, fellows, and past (and future!) SALT speakers:

George Dyson, who spoke at Long Now in 02013, says the Reynolds Number from fluid dynamics can be applied to non-traditional domains to understand why things might go smoothly for a while, and then all of a sudden don’t.

Long Now Board Member Stewart Brand says genetic rescue can help threatened wildlife populations by restoring genetic diversity.

Priyamvada Natarajan, who spoke at Long Now in 02016, describes how the bending of light, or gravitational lensing, is a consequence of Einstein’s re-conceptualization of gravity in his theory of relativity.

Samuel Arbesman, who spoke at the Interval in 02016, says “magical” self-replicating computer programs known as quines underscore the limits of mathematics and computer science while demonstrating that reproduction isn’t limited to the domain of the biological.

Michael Shermer, who spoke at Long Now in 02015, says the very human tendency to be “preternaturally pessimistic” has an evolutionary basis. Negativity bias, which can be observed across all domains of life, is a holdover from an evolutionary past where existence was more dangerous, so over-reacting to threats offered more of a pay-off than under-reacting.

Long Now Board Member Brian Eno sets his sights on confirmation bias after a particularly divisive election season playing out on social media revealed that more information does not necessarily equal better decisions.

George Church of Long Now’s Revive and Restore says that while DNA may be one of the most widely known scientific terms, far too few people understand the DNA in their own bodies. With DNA tests as low as $499, Church says there’s no reason not to get your DNA tested, especially when it could allow for preventative measures when it comes to genetic diseases.

Brian Christian, who spoke at Long Now in 02016, argues that human culture progresses via the retention of youthful traits into adulthood, a process known as neoteny.

Long Now Board Member Kevin Kelly argues that the best way to steer clear of failure is by letting go of success once it is achieved, thereby avoiding premature optimization.

Seth Lloyd, who spoke at Long Now in 02016, explains the accelerating spread of digital information using a centuries-old scientific concept from classical mechanics called the virial theorem.

Long Now Board Member Danny Hillis unpacks impedance matching, or adding elements to a system so that it accepts energy more efficiently. He predicts a future where impedance matching could help cool the earth by adding tiny particles of dust to our stratosphere that would reflect away the sun’s infrared waves.

Steven Pinker, who spoke at Long Now in 02012, argues that the meaning of life and human purpose lies in the second law of thermodynamics. Pinker believes our deeply-engrained habit of under-appreciating the universe’s tendency towards disorder is “a major source of human folly.”

Long Now Board Member Paul Saffo says that at the heart of today’s biggest challenges, from sustaining mega-cities to overpopulation to information overload, are hidden laws of scale described by Haldane’s Rule of the Right Size.

Martin Rees, who spoke at Long Now in 02010, says we may be living in a multiverse.

These are just a few of this year’s thought-provoking answers; you can read the full collection here.

Edge Question 02016

Posted on Tuesday, January 12th, 02016 by Andrew Warner
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double_tulips_2016.640

It’s been an annual tradition since 01998: with a new year comes a new Edge question.

Every January, John Brockman presents the members of his online salon with a question that elicits discussion about some of the biggest intellectual and scientific issues of our time. Previous iterations have included prompts such as “What should we be worried about?” or “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” The essay responses – in excess of a hundred each year – offer a wealth of insight into the direction of today’s cultural forces, scientific innovations, and global trends.

This year, Brockman asks:

WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER THE MOST INTERESTING RECENT [SCIENTIFIC] NEWS? WHAT MAKES IT IMPORTANT?

Scientific topics receiving prominent play in newspapers and magazines over the past several years include molecular biology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, superstrings, biodiversity, nanotechnology, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, space biospheres, the Gaia hypothesis, virtual reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines. … Unlike previous intellectual pursuits, the achievements of the third culture are not the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class: they will affect the lives of everybody on the planet.

You might think that the above list of topics is a preamble for the Edge Question 2016, but you would be wrong. It was a central point in my essay, “The Third Culture,” published 25 years ago in The Los Angeles Times, 1991 (see below). The essay, a manifesto, was a collaborative effort, with input from Stephen Jay Gould, Murray Gell-Mann, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Jared Diamond, Stuart Kauffman, Nicholas Humphrey, among other distinguished scientists and thinkers. It proclaimed:

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

“The wide appeal of the third-culture thinkers,” I wrote, “is not due solely to their writing ability; what traditionally has been called ‘science’ has today become ‘public culture.’Stewart Brand writes that ‘Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.’ We now live in a world in which the rate of change is the biggest change.” Science has thus become a big story, if not the big story: news that will stay news.

This is evident by the continued relevance today of the scientific topics in the 1991 essay that were all in play before the Web, social media, mobile communications, deep learning, big data. Time for an update. …

Contributors include: Long Now President Stewart Brand, Long Now Board Members Kevin Kelly, Peter Schwartz, Paul Saffo, and many of our past Seminar speakers.

 

 

 

 

MIT Paleoclimate Study Reveals When the American West Dried Up

Posted on Tuesday, November 3rd, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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We know that the American West was once much wetter than it is today; the region is riddled with ancient lake beds and fossilized aquatic creatures. At some point in the last 15,000 years, these inland seas disappeared and turned to desert – but exactly when this happened was not well known.

Until recently: a group of MIT researchers has discovered that the American west must have dried up just about 8,200 years ago – and that it did so relatively rapidly.

They came to this conclusion by studying stalagmites found inside a cave in the Nevada Great Basin. Stalagmites – rock formations that grow upwards on the floor of a cave from material that drips down from the ceiling – are “deposited in layers, kind of like stacked traffic cones,” says David McGee, an MIT paleoclimatologist and leader of the research team.

“Each year’s drips make a new coating, and when you cut them open, they have a very clear set of layers, and a clear sense of this is older, this is younger. So they have stratigraphy to them, which is important to us.”

The team was able to date each layer by calculating its ratio of Uranium to Thorium isotopes – a common way to determine the age of limestone. The researchers then looked at the mineral composition of each layer, and realized that it gave an indication of the moisture content that must have been present in the soil above ground at the time each layer was deposited. ”I’ve heard stalagmites called ‘fossilized groundwater,’ and that’s essentially what they are,” McGee explains. “Groundwater is percolating through the soil and rock, gets to the cave and drips out, and precipitates this stalagmite. The chemistry of that groundwater tells us something about the conditions outside the cave.” Groundwater contains large quantities of calcium and magnesium. As it seeps downward through the soil it leaves that calcium behind, leaving the water that ultimately drips into the cave with a relatively high concentration of magnesium. The research team realized that a drier climate slows down this percolation of water through soil, resulting in more calcium deposits in the ground, higher magnesium concentrations in the water that entered the cave, and thus higher levels of magnesium in the stalagmite layers that correspond to a dry period.

Analysis revealed a marked and steep rise in the concentration of magnesium in stalagmite layers that began about 8,200 years ago. It marks a major climatic change – one that must have affected the way people lived at the time. Exactly what caused this drying out remains a mystery, though McGee has an idea:

One of the big things that was happening at this time worldwide was the collapse of the last vestiges of this big ice sheet in Canada,” McGee says. “An ice sheet is thought to have important effects on where the jet stream goes. By having this ice sheet here, it made it so the jet stream was more likely to bring storms into the American West, and when it collapsed, the region became more like it is today.

The MIT study complements other ongoing analyses of long-term Great Basin climate change, including ones that are hosted and facilitated by Long Now itself: our Nevada property is one of several field locations used by researchers Scotty Strachan and Matt Salzer (pictured below), who study bristlecone core samples and weather station data to study long-term trends in weather patterns – such as moisture content in the air, or the amount of sunlight per year – across a variety of Great Basin microclimates.

Studies like these not only help us understand how our landscape came to look the way it does, but also create a larger picture for us of long-term climate change and its impact on human civilization – much like former SALT speaker Stefan Kroepelin does in the Sahara. This larger picture can help us better assess the meaning of more short-term weather fluctuations, and help us predict what may happen – and how we should respond – as we see our planet warming up.

Live audio stream for Andy Weir at The Interval on October 27, 02015

Posted on Saturday, October 24th, 02015 by Mikl Em
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Long Now members can tune in for a live audio simulcast of this sold out event starting at 7:15 PT, October 27

Andy Weir at The Interval, October 27, 02015

Andy Weir author of The Martian speaks in Long Now’s “Conversations at The Interval” series this Tuesday. Andy will talk about the real science of a Mars colonization mission. What would Martian colonization really be like? What would it take to get us to the red planet? What would we do to establish a colony once we landed?

Andy will speak live at The Interval, Long Now’s cafe/bar/museum/headquarters in San Francisco. We will stream his talk live (and free) for Long Now members on the member site. Then Long Now’s Peter Schwartz will interview Andy onstage. We’ll have copies of The Martian on sale and Andy will sign books after he speaks.

Tickets to this event sold out quickly, as our Interval talks often do. Due to the huge interest we will be live audio-streaming Tuesday’s talk for members. We also livestream our monthly SALT series as a free benefit for our members.

Long Now members can tune in for a live audio simulcast at 7:15 PT on October 27

Current Long Now members, just login on the member site. You can join Long Now for just $8/month; benefits includes tickets to Seminars, HD video of 12 years of Long Now talks, and many other perks.

While we don’t currently live stream all our Interval event, we hope to do so increasingly in the future. We also plan to release Interval talks as podcasts and video on the Long Now site (similarly to our Seminar series). Long Now is seeking a major sponsor to fund the cost of producing this series to the standard of our Seminar media. Sponsorship inquiries are welcome.

Mount Tambora Eruption in 01815 Reverberated Across the Planet

Posted on Friday, September 18th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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In April of 01815, Mount Tambora – an active volcano in what is now Indonesia – erupted after a few hundred years of dormancy. For several days, it spewed hot lava and ash into the air, casting its environment in pitch black darkness. The largest observed eruption in recorded history, it was heard and felt as far as 1,600 miles away, and produced tsunami waves of up to 4 meters across the Indonesian archipelago. The explosion caused part of the volcano itself to cave in, and killed tens of thousands of people.

A year later, England noted the coldest winter of its recorded history, and the Eastern United States reported an uncharacteristically short summer. In 01817, Germany suffered a famine, and India a cholera epidemic. Though never linked back to the Tambora eruption at the time, a new book by Gillen D’Arcy Wood shows how the explosion in Indonesia reverberated across the planet, producing colder weather and dark storm clouds – followed by crop failure – for several years following the event.

Tambora’s impact can be traced through European cultural history: it is memorialized in J.M.W. Turner’s fiery sunsets – caused by particles of ash that spread across the planetary atmosphere – and even in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was inspired by a gloomy summer that forced England’s gentry to keep itself entertained with indoor activities.

There is a lesson in this retrospective connection of the dots, Wood argues:

… the revelation of global volcanic ruin – a portrait 200 years in the making – offers a kind of meditation on the difficulty of uncovering the subtle effects of climate change, whether its origins lie in nature’s fury or the invisible byproducts of human civilization.

Moreover, Wood’s analysis reminds us that even the most subtle (and temporary) climatic changes can have a profound impact on global civilization.

 

2,000-Year Old Termite Mounds Found in Central Africa

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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Much like ants, termites are a testament to the adage that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A single termite is an almost translucent creature, no more than a few millimeters long. But put several thousand of them together, and they become capable of building expansive structures, some reaching up as high as 17 feet.

Moreover, a recent discovery suggests that some termite mounds are not only very tall, but also very old. A joint Belgian-Congolese team of geologists carbon-dated a set of four mounds in the Congo’s Miombo Woods, and found them to be between 680 and 2200 years old. Though the oldest of these had been abandoned centuries ago, the researchers infer from their findings that some species of termites can inhabit one and the same structure for several hundreds of years. This far exceeds the lifespan of any one colony (which matches that of its queen), suggesting that a kind of intergenerational inheritance passes the mound from one queen to the next.

Swarm intelligence, it seems, leads not only to highly organized labor and solid engineering, but also to long-term thinking.

Himawari-8 Satellite Offers A New Look at Our Planet – 144 Times Per Day

Posted on Wednesday, August 5th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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Himawari-8_true-color_2015-01-25_0230Z

A sense of perspective is unavoidable from 22,000 miles out. Looking down at Earth from that distance — almost three times farther than the diameter of the planet itself — allows a view of the globe as a massive organic system, pulsing with continuous movement. (NY Times)

Last month, Japan’s new Himawari-8 weather satellite began sending data back to Earth. Launched in late 02014 to help track storm systems and other weather patterns in the Pacific Rim, it looks down on Earth from a geostationary orbit, at about 36,000 kilometers (or 22,000 miles) from the surface.

Its considerable distance from Earth isn’t necessarily surprising; most weather satellites do their work in high earth orbit. But what makes Himawari-8 unique among its colleagues is the fact that it is capable of taking full-color photos of the entire planet. Every day, it sends 144 of these “living portraits” back down to Earth – or one photograph every ten minutes.

himawari-8__1

With an unprecedentedly high resolution that can visualize features as small as 500 square meters, these images will help scientists better understand the genesis, evolution, and outcome of large-scale weather patterns. But on a broader level, the pictures Himawari-8 sends back can’t help but awaken in us what the Planetary Collective has called the Overview Effect: the combined sense of awe and oneness that seems to come over us all when we see images of the whole Earth, framed by the blackness of space.

The data Himawari-8 produces is meant to help us better grasp the ever-changing, fleeting, and highly localized behavior of the Pacific atmosphere. But it also offers us a reminder to step outside of ourselves and consider the fact that we ultimately inhabit a very small corner of a much larger unit of space and time.

The Really Big One

Posted on Monday, July 13th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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On the face of it, earthquakes seem to present us with problems of space: the way we live along fault lines, in brick buildings, in homes made valuable by their proximity to the sea. But, covertly, they also present us with problems of time. The earth is 4.5 billion years old, but we are a young species, relatively speaking, with an average individual allotment of three score years and ten. The brevity of our lives breeds a kind of temporal parochialism—an ignorance of or an indifference to those planetary gears which turn more slowly than our own.

A sobering article detailing the science, infrastructure, and politics behind preparing for a once-a-several-century earthquake from Kathryn Schulz at The New Yorker.

Centre for the Study of Existential Risk needs researchers

Posted on Monday, April 6th, 02015 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Former Long Now speaker Sir Martin Rees just wrote in to let us know that the new Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (At the University of Cambridge) is recruiting four postdoctoral researchers to work on the study of extreme risks arising from technological advances. Specific projects include: responsible innovation in transformative technologies; horizon-scanning and foresight; ethics and evaluation of extreme technological risks, and policy and governance challenges associated with emerging technologies.

They also have the flexibility to hire one or more postdoctoral researchers to work on additional projects relevant to the Centre’s broad aims, which include impacts and safety in artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, biosecurity, extreme tail climate change, geoengineering, and catastrophic biodiversity loss. They welcome proposals from a range of fields.

The deadline for applications is April 24th, and details can be found here:
http://www.jobs.cam.ac.uk/job/6554/