My Life With Stephen

Jane Hawking, Stephen Hawking’s ex-wife, has written a book about her life together with Stephen, which has recently appeared here in the US under the title Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen. At around 400 pages, it’s an abridged version of the 600 page Music to Move the Stars: A Life With Stephen, which appeared in the UK back in 1999. A US production company, Film and Music Entertainment (FAME), has acquired an option to make a movie of the book (weirdly enough, the contract is on-line), but I don’t know whether the movie is actually going to get made.

The Hawking’s separation in 1990 and later divorce was widely covered in the media, and the book doesn’t dwell on the depressing details. Stephen went to live with one of his nurses, Elaine Mason (who at the time was married), and later married her. Jane later married Jonathan Jones, a musician she had met a decade earlier, partly through her church choir, and who developed a close relationship with her and the rest of the Hawking family during the 80s. At the time of the UK edition of the book, there was little contact between Jane and Stephen, but it appears that Stephen is now in the process of getting divorced from Mason, and has re-entered Jane’s life.

Up until the publication and huge success of A Brief History of Time, the Hawkings were not especially well-off, and dependent on others (including the MacArthur Foundation) for the high costs associated with Stephen’s care. After 1989 though, the book and other projects brought in huge sums of money, which made him a wealthy man and perhaps played some sort of role in the collapse of the marriage.

The Hawkings were married back in 1965, at a time when Stephen’s illness had already become apparent, and his prognosis for long-term survival was not good at all. For the next 25 years, Jane spent most of her time in the back-breaking labor of caring for an invalid husband while raising three children. While Stephen went from success to success, the center of attention due to his brilliant scientific work and triumph over his disability, Jane received little support, encouragement, or recognition for the sacrifices she was making, and one would have to be a saint to not develop some resentment for the situation and for the way it ended. She tells the whole story in some detail, and it’s in many ways a rather sad one.

Among the sources of conflict between them were: religion (she was a believer, he a fervent atheist), his family (described as definitely not nice to her), and his devotion to physics:

I sensed that there was yet another partner lurking in our already overcrowded marriage. The fourth partner first appeared in the form of a trusted and quiescent friend, signalling the way to success and fulfilment for those who followed her. In fact she proved to be a relentless rival, as exacting as any mistress, an inexorable Siren, luring her devotees into deep pools of obsession. She was none other than Physics, cited by Einstein’s first wife as the correspondent in divorce proceedings.

She describes how, during his work on black holes leading up to the discovery of Hawking radiation, Stephen would isolate himself:

For Stephen those periods of intense concentration may have been useful exercises in cultivating that silent, inner strength which would enable him to think in eleven dimensions. Unable to tell whether it was oblivion or indifference to my need to talk that sealed him off so hermetically, I found those periods sheer torture, especially when, as sometimes happened, they were accompanied by long sessions of Wagnerian opera, particularly The Ring Cycle, played at full volume on the radio or the record player. It was then, as I felt my own voice stifled and my own spontaneity suppressed inside me, that I grew to hate Wagner.

Jane also tells the story of Stephen’s first public talk on black hole radiation, after which the chairman of the session, J.G. Taylor:

…sprang to his feet, blustering, “Well, this is quite preposterous! I have never heard anything like it. I have no alternative but to bring this session to an immediate close!”

After this brusque cut-off of any questions, she describes how later she observed:

Still blustering and indignantly muttering to his students, J.G. Taylor stood behind me in the queue, unaware of my identity. I was rehearsing a few cutting remarks in Stephen’s defence when I heard him splutter, “We must get that paper out straight away!”

After she reported this to Stephen, he sent his paper off immediately to Nature, where the referee turned out to be Taylor himself. The article was first rejected, then finally accepted after a second referee was consulted. It appeared in the March 1 1974 issue with the title Black Hole Explosions?. Taylor’s paper (with P.C.W. Davies as co-author) arguing that Hawking was wrong appeared a few months later as Do Black Holes Really Explode?. After writing many papers on string theory during the late eighties, more recently Taylor has devoted his time to the study of neural nets and consciousness.

While Jane quite liked many of the relativist colleagues of Stephen’s that she was meeting, especially if they weren’t in a group talking about physics, she was much less impressed by the particle theorists that Stephen started spending his time with after the mid-seventies as his work concentrated on quantum gravity and unification:

Nor, I have to confess, did the set of scientists with whom Stephen was now associating attract me in the least. On the whole, particle physicists were a dry, obsessive bunch of boffins, little concerned with personal contact but very concerned with their own scientific reputations. They were much more aggressively competitive than the relaxed, friendly relativists with whom we had associated in the past.

Despite Stephen’s disability, the Hawkings did an immense amount of traveling, especially for professional purposes, and Jane describes her impressions of the places they went and people they met. One of the few things she gets wrong is the name of Andrei Linde’s wife, Renata Kallosh, who they met on a trip to Moscow. Linde is now one of the most fervent proponents of the anthropic principle, which appears at one point in the book as Jane tells about early debates between Stephen and Brandon Carter during the late sixties and early seventies. She describes it as philosophically close to the medieval Ptolemaic universe, trying to put man at the center of all things.

The book is mostly not a book about physics though, but very much about what it was like to struggle with caring for someone coping with a grave disability, a difficult and not always rewarding task even in this remarkable case of someone who has overcome obstacles and achieved about the highest pinnacle of success possible.

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30 Responses to My Life With Stephen

  1. gunpowder&noodles says:

    This is what brings me back to this blog: well-written articles that I could not get elsewhere, even if I don’t agree with many of them. No parochial poliitical crap that I could get anywhere [cf Cosmic Variance]. No boring, rambling diatribes about God-knows-what [Reference Frame]. Better watch out for Sabine H. though, she is catching up with you….

  2. anonymous coward says:

    In my mind I need to qualify that final “success”… he achieved about the highest pinnacle of scientific success, yes. But shouldn’t success in life have something to do with how you care for your family?

    Out of curiosity, are there good examples of leading scientists who were noted for having great family lives?

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks gunpowder,

    Sabine does have a great blog, I’m glad to see that there are more and more of them around. It’s not a competitive sport…


    Actually most of the leading mathematicians I know well enough to know about their families seem to be quite successful there too. On the whole I think mathematicians and physicists do no worse in this area than other people. Hawking’s story is a very unusual one, with unusually difficult problems both he and his wife had to face.

  4. Flerp says:

    Feynman’s family life, his first wife’s very untimely death notwithstanding, seems to have been mostly happy.

  5. Christa says:

    Hi Peter,

    Good story. But am I being excessively critical or is Stephen Hawking (somewhat) overestimated as a professional physicist (by both general audiences and academic colleagues, albeit I presume less by the latter)? I can understand the general sympathy given him as someone suffering from ALS AND doing worthwhile physics, but how much has he actually contributed other than his earlier works – which by far aren’t necessarily uncommon. It seems more and more that he is a celebrity / physicist than a genuine heir to Einstein, et. al. However, when credit is due one should receive it by all means, but excessive credit is going the wrong way.

    Einstein, Dirac, Weinberg, etc. deserve to be regarded as major figures as they produced genuinely worthwhile results which have made major impacts on theory physics, but I am not quite as certain regarding Hawking’s contributions.

    Maybe it’s just me…

  6. Large Atom says:


    “Success” is a relative and subjective term; relative in that, what is “success” for one may be unimportant to another; and subjective in that, there should be no way to quantify it.

    What if one does not have a “family”, by the way, and we define a part of success using such a term? Is this person somehow not able to ever fully achieve it?

  7. Arun says:

    Feynman’s family life, his first wife’s very untimely death notwithstanding, seems to have been mostly happy.

    No, his infidelities were endured and caused pain.

  8. Chris Oakley says:

    Christa does have a point. I am not questioning his achievements as a mathematician, but unlike the other notables mentioned, nothing Hawking has done has made any impact on physics, and given the difficulties in establishing the existence of black holes, never mind checking for radiation from them, may never.

    As regards Feynman’s moral character, I refer the interested reader to my Amazon review of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”. Feel free to add more unhelpful votes (currently 4 out of 4).

  9. Steve Myers says:

    It’s easy to judge a life from the outside. Also a good rule to follow: never trust the opinion of an ex-wife.

  10. SteveM says:

    It is fair to say that if Hawking was able bodied then the general public simply would never have head of him. However, his condition coupled with the type of work he does has certainly captured the imagination of the public and created that rarest of things–the celebrity scientist. Easy to see how it must have put a huge strain on his marraige though. I like Hawking’s way of thinking and doing things. His papers are usually clear and readable and his contributions to general relativity are important. Also, his radiating black hole work was the first time ideas from both quantum mechanics and gravitation came together in a consistent and very tantalising way; and of course, people are very much still thinking about that.

  11. You do not need my appreciation Peter, but I concur with gunpowder… Great post, and always a pleasure to read you.


  12. island says:

    The highest pinnacle of success possible can easily mean that Hawking holds Newton’s chair, which was held prior to him by Paul Dirac. It doesn’t require any, “what have you done for me lately’s” for the statement to be reasonable and correct.

    I thought that the ideas that he presented at GR-17 were pretty interesting stuff though.

  13. Garbage says:


    For anyone interested, there is an enjoyable paper by Page about Hawking calculation and some historical notes.

    I think the credits should go to Zeldovich also, but as usual there is always a russian who did everything first…

    I agree Hawking wont get upgraded to Einstein’s level, but try to do math without pencil and paper, and let alone talk about not being able to do so! I even have troubles splitting the bill at the restaurant sometimes, I dont want to even try to imagine being in his shoes…

  14. anon on the hudson says:

    I wasn’t going to respond to ths post. But the more I thought about Steven and Jane Hawking the angrier I became.

    There is something morally rancid about Steven and Jane Hawking. As other people on this thread have pointed out, without the affliction of Amyotropic Lateral Scelerosis, 99.9 percent of the general public would have a clue as to who Steven Hawking is.

    Amyoptropic Lateral sclerosis has given Steven Hawking massive celebrity status that he would never would have experienced if he did not have ALS-his enormous contributions to Black Hole theory notwithstanding.

    The celebrity status that ALS has given Steven Hawking has made Steven Hawking a wealthy man. I have no problem with this.

    However, Steven Hawking and his wife Jane have never-with the exception of a minor bleat last year about stem cells-used Steven’s celebrity status to raise conciousness among the general public in the UK and the US and to call for a massive increase in goverment funding of ALS research and goverment support to his fellow PALS(people with ALS)

    Instead we get a celebrity sob story loaded with stories about Steven’s randy behavior. No doubt, a movie will soon follow, and Jane and Steven Hawking will be the wealthier for it.

    In the mean time……ALS research will continue to remain underfunded and inefested with ego-maniac ALS researchers with marginal scientific talent(this is a good description of the Columbia Presbyterian Lou Gherigs center).

    The suffereing for over 90 percent of PALS and their caregivers-CALS- is many orders of magnitude worse than Steven and Jane Hawking’s suffering Under the circumstances, Steven and Jane Hawking have lived quite comfortably. Awash in $$$$$ these days, active social life, appearances on national TV and….a chance to act in a Star Tek next Generation episode!!!!.

    For over 90 percent of PALS, every second, every minute every hour, every week,every month and every year is a living hell. Most PALS either commit suicide by not traching or are tricked into not traching by family members and hospice staff into not traching( One British legal scholar argues that under Anglo-American legal theory, tricking PALS into not traching, especially by medical profressionals, should be considered a very serious crime)

    Steven Hawking was waited on hand and foot by a well paid nursing staff. In America, the majority of PALS are “taken care of by” by either a five dollar an indifferent home home health aid worker-many times not fluent in english-who often doze off in a chair for several hours or a nursing home where they decide to commit suicide after they become completely locked in.

    I’m not intertsted in the “devout Christain” Jane’s Hawking’s sob story and tales about her husbands feynmanesque infidelitities.

    Steve Hawking could have used his celebrity status-bestowed upon him by Amyotropic Lateral Scelrosis-to raise pressure both in the UK and the US goverment to massively increase funding for ALS research and goverment support for PALS. Steven Hawking choose not to do this.

    Think off all the public appearances Stevn Hawking has made in the US. Steven Hawking has been on shows such as Larry King numerous times. So many blown opportunities. A real man in his condidtion would have used his appearances to make very strong statements about the lack of funding for ALS research and lack of goverment support for PALS locked in their bodies locked in a room with caregiver- year after after year in some situations.

    Here is What Steven Hawking could have said on the Larry King show:”The US invasion of Iraq cost 11 billion dollars a week and will cost at least a trillion dollars when it is all over. These billions could have been spent curing Amyoptripic Lateral Sclerosis one of the worst diseases known to man. I am very forutnate to have a very strong support system. However, for my fellow American PALS, life is a living hell. This is outrageous. Put this money into curing Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis and other underfunded small market disease. Eleven billion dollars a month for the invasion and occupation of Iraq? Eleven billion dollars could have cured this terrible disease many times over.

    I don’t care how many children Steven Hawking has sired. In my book, a real man-especially one whose his fame and forutne is a direct conseqence of being aflicted with Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis-with Hawking’s clebrity status and wealth would have demostrated a much higher degree of solidarity with his fellow PALS.

    America, the nation with the largest number of PALS and their CALS, has made steven Hawking a wealthy man. His chidren and grandchldren will be economically secure for sure.

  15. Molnar says:

    I don’t have a problem with people taking potshots at Hawking for his physics or his marital behavior (although I’m not about to throw any stones in those areas), but I think “anon on the hudson” has a misconception of what is considered good manners in most of the world outside the U.S. In most places with which I am familiar, it is considered perfectly acceptable to use one’s fame to proselytize (politely) on behalf of unfortunates who do not share one’s own affliction, but not on behalf of those who do; such a plea is typically considered self-serving, even if others are also in need, and may well backfire. Perhaps 25 years of Thatcher and Blair have brought the U.K. closer to U.S. standards on this, as well as the somewhat related (in term of social acceptance) behavior of aggressive self-promotion – I can’t say. But as someone who has a 50% chance of getting ALS myself, I can say that I would never expect Hawking to do what anon asks.

  16. Kyle says:

    Anon coward,

    John Bardeen had a good family life. About the only complaint his family sometimes gave was that he worked very hard. As Peter pointed out, I think most physicists have good family lives – at least as good as the profession will allow. Now that college and graduate education for physicists is breaking the decade mark regularly and they often have three to ten years of temporary employment afterwards, keeping a good family life is tremendously difficult.

    As to the post,

    Thanks for the review. However I generally disagree with the statement that Hawking has achieved “about the highest pinnacle of success possible.” Obviously only he can tell us that for sure, but I have always considered his work at the same time very impressive, and not a fraction as important as people try to sell it as – much like Guiness world record holders. This includes his scientific and public outreach works.

    I also consider the “weirdo super genius” identity that the public and physicists have conspired to create bad for the discipline, and both Einstein and Hawking are great examples of it in action. The public likes the idea that to be smart enough to work in something as esoteric as physics, we must have some terrible malady that makes up for the perceived difference in intelligence. Of course most of this difference in intelligence is fictional, but everyone deems it in their best interests to continue the charade.

    In other words, I’m not overwhelmed with Hawking’s accomplishments, and I feel he has done negative things for the public’s understanding and perception of physics. This doesn’t constitute a great success in my book.

    I am quite sure others will vehemently disagree.

  17. M says:

    Hawking started quantum gravity, by showing that it could be a flourishing field. And that at least it sells books.

    We will see if this field leads somewhere or if the final word will be a footnote in textbooks about astrophysical black holes: “we can ignore Hawking radiation with respect to radiation emitted by ambient matter”.

  18. Who says:

    In other words, I’m not overwhelmed with Hawking’s accomplishments, and I feel he has done negative things for the public’s understanding and perception of physics. This doesn’t constitute a great success in my book.

    I am quite sure others will vehemently disagree.

    Perhaps others do so, but I heartily agree and thank you for putting it succinctly.

  19. relativist says:

    Chris Oakley says “nothing Hawking has done has made any impact on physics”. This is not true. According to Google Scholar, the black hole radiation paper has had 2999 citations. Hawking’s next three best papers each have had over 1000 citations, and a further 8 have over 400 citations. No matter how you try to decry his work, this is a huge impact. The fact that he has had a major impact on physics rather than just mathematics is also made clear by the talks at his 60th birthday meeting (published in “The Future of Theoretical Physics and Cosmology”, edited by Gibbons et al).

  20. Ck says:

    Molnar – what absolute rubbish.

    Christopher Reeve campaigned relentlessly and tirelessly for his own cause – “self interest” as you so inappropriately put it. He was widely admired and supported for his extraordinary efforts.

    How do you categorise famous people who have had breast cancer, for example, and then go on to help raise funds for that health problem? Or prostate cancer, and so on?

    How to you view parents of sick children who make it their life’s work to raise research funds and to gain gov’t and public support for “their” cause, all out of “self interest”, because they hold hopes of a miracle for their child?

    Your comments are ignorant.

    Look at the real world for goodness sake. People don’t randomly “take up a cause”, there is almost always a personal connection for them, whether it be a friend or a relative, or yes, even themselves! If this was NOT the case the arse would fall out of medical fund raising and research efforts in the blink of an eye.

    You owe “anon on the Hudson” an apology, not for the rest of your opinion, but for being so blindly wrong about medical awareness and fund raising efforts.

  21. anon on the hudson says:


    I am not interested in a knock down debate with molnar. To even write about Lou Gherigs disease causes me great pain.

    In discussions on ALS websites, PALS and their CALS have expressed

    great diappointment that Steven Hawking and his ex-wife Jane have not used their celebrity status to bring much greater attention to the issue of the immorally low level of funding for Amyopropic Lateral Sclerosis research.

    I don’t want to be mean about this, but a case can be made that Steven Hawking has acted in a self-serving way.

    Unfortunately, Steven Hawking gives the general public the impression that Amyoptropic Lateral scelerosis is a disese that a person can live with. If a PAL does not have a strong support system-which most PALS do not-Amyotropic Lateral Scelrosis is not a disease that most PALS can live with. As I mentioned previously, most PALS do not get trached(suicide).

    In recent years, the “great” Steven Hawking has taken to making grand pronouncements about the future of humanity. Some of these pronouncements are ignorant and borderline stupid(humans will be replaced by robots in a few decades).

    Steven Hawking probably thinks he is making a grand contribution to humanity by pontificating about the fate of humanity.

    Well, if Steven Hawking is the least bit interested in making an important contribution to humanity beyond his work in quanum gravity, he may want to start with something as urgent and close by as the indescribable suffering of the 99.9 percent of his fellow PALS who are not in a position to use the terrible affliction of Amyotropic LAteral Scerosis to make themselves a wealthy celebrity.

    Most PALS I know, if they were as wealthy and famous as Steven Hawking, would hammer home unrelentingly on TV and during public speaking engagements one point:99.9 percent of people with Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis will die a horrible death or commit suicide unless the US goverment puts at least one billion dollars a year into ALS research.

    For the last four months of his life, my brother was quadraplegic in a medical bed. He had a deep interest in cosmology. I bought several of Professors Hawkngs popular books. I would flip the pages for him as he read. I did this to distract him this horrific disease.

    If Steven Hawking wants to make a nontrivial contribution to humanity outside of his work in physics he might consider making a very public statement along the following lines:the Iraq war costs the American people 11 billion dollars a month. If this money was spent on curing ALS-just one month of the Iraq war!!!!-a cure for for Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis could be found very soon.

    This would be a much better use of his celebrity status-bestowed upon him by Amyoptropic Lateral Sclerosis-than making stupid statements about human beings being replaced by robots in twenty to thirty years.

    It’s not too late Steven Hawking and Jane Hawking.

  22. Howking says:

    Relativist, Chris Oakley did mean “impact on stablished physics”.

    Just count how many Nobel Prizes for physics Hawking won.

  23. Chris Oakley says:

    There seem to be very few on this thread who are prepared to identify themselves. Obviously “Anon on the Hudson” has a tale to tell. It would be interesting to hear more, and although I respect his/her wish for anonymity, I do not quite understand it.

    Re: Hawking and physics: If citation counts were all that mattered, then all of the Nobel prizes for physics in recent years would have gone to String Theorists. Luckily, the subject has not gone off the rails completely (although sometimes I wonder), and the Swedish Academy, at least, recognises that for something to be called “physics” it has to be verified experimentally.

  24. Molnar says:

    CK: Your sole counterexample to the theorem does not satisfy the conditions (Christopher Reeve was American), and the rest of your post is just handwaving: zero marks out of ten. Try to be a bit more rigorous next time.

    Hudson: My only point about your post was that we should be sensitive to cultural differences. Being reserved about personal issues and keeping a stiff upper lip is a bigger part of British culture than American (or at least it was not too long ago).

  25. Juan R. González-Álvarez says:

    “Hawking started quantum gravity, by showing that it could be a flourishing field.”

    Are you sure M?

    The first papers in quantum gravity were from Rosenfeld on the 30s. In the 30s the idea of the graviton was already introduced. Rovelli calls the prehistory of quantum gravity.

    Hawking first ‘important’ paper on BH radiation was on 1974. But it was not about quantum gravity but an aplication of QFT on curved spacetime.

    Four years latter Hawking revives the Wheeler-Misner-Feynman
    approach in the form of “Euclidean quantum gravity”. That is where Hawking enters in quantum gravity, a field however Hawking does not star.

    Now if you have some time, count the multiple names between Rosenfeld 1930 and Hawking 1978: Bronstein, Feynman, Wheeler, Dirac, DeWitt, Pauli, Finkelstein, Weinberg, …

  26. Steve Demuth says:

    Several things trouble me about Anon the Hudson‘s postings.

    First, the equation of refusal to be “trached” with suicide, is I think, morally extreme. The right to refuse invasive life-exending medical procedures is widely recognized in the western world to be without the moral taint of suicide. It is a huge step backward in our understanding of autonomy in the context of medical care to assert otherwise.

    Secondly, the explicit criticism of the Hawkings for not “raising consciousness … and advocating for massive increases in government funding” is at least problematic. The Hawkings may have made this choice for base reasons, but they may equally well have done so for morally sound and rational reasons. They may have concluded, for example, that however costly and devastating ALS is in their lives, it does not deserve to be a higher priority of government biomedical research that it already is. ALS after all is a rare disease (an average incidence in countries with primarily European populations of 4 per 100,000, and significantly less than that in non-European populations) that strikes people fairly late in life (average onset in the early 50s) that is not communicable or known to be environmentally triggered. In other words, as bad as it is, it appears to be a random act of nature that, compared with many conditions, destroys relatively few total years of productive life in society worldwide.

    I know a little bit about ALS, and the impact it has on people’s lives, having seen a friends parent die of the disease, and having friends of my own with the disease. I certainly do not discount the real anguish Anon on Hudson no doubt feels through some close personal connection with the affliction. But I don’t think the response posted here with respect to Hawking is a productive use of that pain. Dying from a terrible disease by refusing treatment is not suicide, and could, for some, be a courageous and morally uplifting assertion of agency over a disease that has relentlessly ravaged their potential for agency. Choosing not to be a public advocate for spending on one’s own condition is not automatically a selfish act. It could well be a defensible, unselfish, decision that one’s own afflictions are not necessarily, by virtue of being one’s own, a priority for the world.

  27. anon says:

    In Hawking’s defense, I believe he has been an outspoken advocate for people with disabilities in general, even if not for people with ALS in particular. For example, in his various visits to developing countries he has been quite vocal in his support for improved wheelchair access and the integration of people with disabilities into society.

    So perhaps he has simply chosen carefully which battles to fight.

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  30. Tanya A. says:

    Anyone who read Jane Hawking’s memoir, especially the first version of it, and paid any attention will be aware that they both did a lot of campaigning for ALS victims when they were married. After their divorce, Jane tried to become involved again but found herself blacklisted because of her separation from Stephen, since Stephen’s name carried more weight.

    I don’t want to say either one is a saint, or conversely to be too hard on either one of them because they were subjected to inhuman pressures (both of them) and turned out (both) to be only human. But they have always struck me as decent people and their bad moments as only human, and yes, it’s important to remember that charity is done somewhat differently in the UK. To accuse either of them and especially Jane of being indifferent to the potential uses of their fame to help others is simply ignorant. Jane Hawking continues to be very active in charitable causes, including for autistic children (she has an autistic grandson). And Stephen Hawking has been working to raise environmental awareness of late.

    Again, nobody’s perfect. But “morally rancid” is untrue and unfair. Please read the book before you make such comments.

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