Not Even Wrong: The Book

There’s a project I’ve been working on for the last couple years that I haven’t wanted to write about here until it was further along, but now seems to be a good time. I’ve written a book, also entitled “Not Even Wrong”, and the British publisher Jonathan Cape is bringing it out in England, publication date March 16th from what I last heard. It will presumably appear later in the U.S., with the publisher here still to be arranged. Right now I’m putting some final touches on the manuscript, and hope to have a final version within the next week or so. You can take a look at the latest version of the cover art, and someone last night wrote to tell me that Random House in Canada has a catalog entry for the book.

The book contains material on several related topics, including a history of the standard model from a mathematically-informed perspective, a description of the history, current status and prospects of high energy accelerators and particle physics experiments, some of the history of recent interactions between mathematics and physics, a history of supersymmetry and string theory and attempts to use them to get beyond the standard model, comments on the notion of “beauty” in theoretical physics and on the sociology of how particle physics is pursued and supported, especially in the U. S.. There’s also a section explaining exactly what the problems with supersymmetry and string theory are, making the case that these are ideas that have failed conclusively, together with an explanation of what the whole “landscape” controversy is about.

The story of how the book came to be is roughly as follows. I started writing it in 2002, and had something pretty well finished by the end of that year. Early in 2003 an editor from Cambridge University Press heard about what I was writing and stopped by to see me when he was visiting Columbia. He got interested in the idea of having Cambridge publish the book, but I think he had no idea of how controversial this topic was. During 2003 the manuscript went through a couple iterations of refereeing at Cambridge. The first round of referee reports included a very positive report from a non-string theory particle theorist, a non-committal report from a mathematician who works on things related to string theory, and an extremely negative report from a string theorist.

I’d been quite curious to see how a string theorist referee would respond to the manuscript, since I was pretty sure all my facts were right, and I assumed that they would have trouble recommending against publication of something without being able to show that it said something incorrect. This first string theorist referee was described to me as a “well-known mainstream string theorist”. He or she dealt with the problem of not being able to find anything wrong with what I had written by claiming that arguing against string theory was like arguing against teaching evolution, and that “I think that you would be very hardpressed to find anybody who would say anything positive about this manuscript”, using this as an excuse for only coming up with one example of something incorrect in the manuscript. By now I’m pretty used to the tactic that was used to do this, but at the time I was pretty shocked by it. A sentence I had written was taken out of context and one of the words was changed from a singular to a plural, allowing the referee to construe the sentence in a way that allowed him or her to claim I wasn’t aware of some important developments in physics.

This experience convinced me that at least some string theorists were in far worse shape than I had imagined, suffering from the delusion that no one who knows what they are talking about could possibly criticize string theory, and willing to stoop to pathetic levels of dishonesty to maintain this point of view. I had off and on been worried that I was being too harsh in some of my criticisms of the behavior of string theorists, but after seeing this report I stopped worrying about this.

The Cambridge editor seemed to believe that the negative referee report lacked credibility, and that it even gave some evidence for the problems I was claiming existed in the string theory community. But for Cambridge to publish a book, a board of academics who act as advisors have to sign off on any decision. The editor felt that this round of referee’s reports would not be enough to convince them, so the manuscript was sent out to two more referees, both theorists who have worked on string theory. It took quite a while for these reports to come back, and when they did, one of them was very positive and recommended publication. The second however was quite negative. This referee found nothing inaccurate to complain about, but said that while he or she agreed with many of my critical comments about string theory, basically string theorists were the ones who should be evaluating the theory, and Cambridge shouldn’t be publishing the opinions of the likes of me. I couldn’t really disagree with this; string theorists are the ones who should be critically evaluating what has happened in the field, but the problem is that they’re not doing it.

At this point the editor still felt that he would have trouble getting approval to publish the book, and offered to try another round of referees, but this seemed to me a waste of time. String theorist referees were clearly willing to strongly recommend against publication even when they couldn’t point to anything inaccurate in the book, and the way the Press works, it was unlikely to publish something over the strong objections of some very prominent people. I then circulated the manuscript to editors at several other university presses. Two of them wrote back that while they found the book very interesting and well-written, a university press just could not publish something so controversial.

A friend of mine then put me in touch with a prominent New York literary agent. Her advice was that, if the manuscript was extensively rewritten to remove some of the more technical discussion, she thought she would be able to easily sell it to a trade publisher. I had mixed feelings about this idea, since if I removed some of these more technical chapters, I would be in the position of criticizing string theory, while not giving the details of what the problems with it were. I had also sent the manuscript to a few quite prominent mathematicians and physicists to ask them for advice about what to do with it. This led to some very interesting e-mail exchanges that I learned a lot from. Finally I heard from Roger Penrose, who offered to put me in contact with his publisher, Jonathan Cape. The editor at Jonathan Cape decided that they would like to publish the book, and that they were perfectly happy with it having some technical parts (which, after all, were quite a bit less technical than much of Penrose’s recent book, which has been a great success).

So, that’s the story until now of the book. I’m certainly curious what reaction it will get when it is published, and of course hope that it will stir up a serious debate on the issues currently surrounding string theory. I also hope the book will provide some explanations of what has been going on at the interface of particle physics and mathematics that a wide range of people will be able to get something out of, from members of the general public with an interest in science and math to professional researchers in both fields.

Update: Commentary on this here, here, here, and here.

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81 Responses to Not Even Wrong: The Book

  1. Pingback: The Quantum Pontiff » Not Even Publishable?

  2. Quantoken says:


    Do you really want to sell your book? Listen your cover art needs a total re-design. From an artistic point of view it’s totally un-attractive. The color is monochrome and boring. There is no balance of the values and shapes, no harmony, no contrast. It’s simply un-appealing and looks ugly. I must admit that blue is my most favorite color. But even to me, the pale blue just look so ugly to me that I wouldn’t even touch it if I see it in a book store.

    Now, the physics part. You think those spiral shape resembles what people gets on a high energy collider? It’s laughable. The Spiral shape, if it spirals inward, describes a picture where the charged particle loses energy by EM radiation and hence spiral inward. That’s a classical picture which is proven wrong and be replaced by QM. And the small curvature radius tells the energy is low, not high. Get some thing real! Or use something totally different.

    Also, do not use the word “failure” on the cover. Negative words on the cover is a turn off. I would rather use something like “controversy”, “debate”, “paradox”, or other words that ring a bell. Helps you sell your book.

    And hide your name on the hinge side, not on the cover. Make the big title bold and red, not black.


  3. woit says:

    Hi Quantoken,
    Thanks for the marketing and design advice, but I’m mostly leaving those issues to the professionals. If you look at the Random House link, you can see the original subtitle for the book, but I agreed with my editors that a more descriptive subtitle was needed. It’s true that part of this book is about a not very inspirational story, which may limit its readership, we’ll see.

    The graphic is essentially a bubble chamber photograph, the designer didn’t make up those spiral shapes.

  4. Quantoken says:

    OK, that surely looks like a bubble chamber photograph, in which particles do lose energy in decaying spiral orbits. But bubble chamber is an instrument for low energy study, it has nothing to do with today’s high energy collider, which is done in vacuum chambers, not bubble chambers. And it surely has even less to do with string theory, which today still makes no connection whatsoever to anything in the particle world, low energy pr high energy.

    So a bubble chamber really does not match the topic you want to describe.

    Better to use a favorite toten or icon the string theorists love to use. I do not know what it could be. But presumably something that must be drawn in 10-D space, not a 3-D image 🙂 And maybe an image of a alchemist sort of thing, too?


  5. sunderpeeche says:

    Quantoken is correct in both postings above. I recognized the cover as a bubble chamber picture and my first thought was “that 1960’s stuff” ~ out of date. You should be able to get a nice picture of tracks from a collider event. While it is true that you may not have (much) control over the graphic art, who decided to use a bubble-chamber picture anyway? (probably a file photo?) Probably someone not as well-informed as you on modern physics.

    It is also true that words like “failure” will be a strong negative. Are you trying to write a negative or positive viewpoint? Your post above has a much better subtitle, why not use it? “… a history of the standard model from a mathematically-informed perspective, a description of the history, …”

    Subtitle ~ “A history of the Standard Model of particle physics from a mathematically-informed perspective with sociological commentary and prospects for the future” (this may be too long … omit “with sociological commentary”)

    Remember that it is the cover that sells the book, whatever the merits of your text may be. People won’t open it if the cover doesn’t appeal.

    One further point — the preface must be well-written (you don’t have a preview of the preface, so one cannot comment on your text). For those who pick up the book, the next step is to read the preface. The preface is the second selling point of the book. It must be good.

  6. Chris Oakley says:

    Well done, Peter! I am proud that it was my nation that was able to help you get this into print. It’s about time.

    <aside>Mind you … your experience does show you how the system works. Get one of the “big guns” to support you (Penrose in this case) and you’ll be fine … otherwise, forget it. </aside>

    The fears about the preface, by the way, are unfounded, if the January 2005 copy of the manuscript I have is anything to go by, anyway … the book is compelling reading from beginning to end.

  7. The Anti-Quantoken says:

    Don’t listen to them, Peter; the cover art is cool, and the negativity is precisely what you are going for. This is an attack on string theory! You’re done mincing words; the theory is a failure, a failure so far removed from valid science that it’s Not Even Wrong, right? I don’t know what planet Quantoken is from, where seeing a negative word on a book cover makes people cry and wet themselves, but when I see a book call a popular and well-regarded theory a “failure,” I want to read that book.

    Congratulations on your success. I’ll be buying a copy.

  8. Tony Smith says:

    Peter, you say, about your book:
    “… The first round of referee reports included a very positive report from a non-string theory particle theorist, a non-committal report from a mathematician who works on things related to string theory, and an extremely negative report from a string theorist. …
    … the manuscript was sent out to two more referees, both theorists who have worked on string theory. It took quite a while for these reports to come back, and when they did, one of them was very positive and recommended publication. The second however was quite negative. …”.

    With respect to that I will quote from an e-mail message that I received some time ago:
    “… retrospective studies have shown that the folks who went on to make truly big breakthroughs, get Nobel prizes, etc. , usually did NOT get all excellents when their ideas were first coming in for review at NSF. More typically, they get a MIX of excellents and poors. Much more can be said… but excluding work based on a kind of “min norm” aggregation of comments is one of the best ways to move towards total mediocrity and zero real research productivity. … The problem of Local heresy and Local conventional wisdom is very serious in every branch of science and engineering I have tracked. …”.


  9. Cameron says:


    Last month’s issue of Discover spotlighted spring theory. The editors asked Michio Kaku to respond to criticisms that string theory is not testable. In the article, Michio describes several upcoming experiments that would provide indirect evidence in support of string theory, depending on what kind of data is reported. Have you read it, and if so, what is your opinion? Looking forward to your book,


  10. woit says:


    I wrote about that article when it first came out, see

    I’ve talked to some people associated with Discover magazine who suggested I contact the editor there about them publishing some sort of rebuttal to the Kaku piece, but, to be honest, I just haven’t had the time to follow up on this.

  11. Scott says:

    I aggree with the anti-quantoken, the cover art looks cool, and most people won’t really care that it is a bubble chamber and not a vacuum chamber, the point is that it is experimental data(at least i am guessing thats the point) which is what science should be based on. Anyways, I can’t wait to buy a copy of your book.

  12. Who says:

    this is really great news
    also i like the cover art and the revised title a lot

  13. woit says:


    A significant part of the book is about history, so the bubble chamber photo seemed appropriate to me. For a while Cape was suggesting a cover with a geometric sort of figure of the kind that Calabi-Yaus tend to inspire. I argued against that and for an image coming from a particle physics experiment, partly because my point of view is that the wealth of experimental evidence and successful theory concerning particles is likely to be much more important for future progress than untestable ideas about quantum gravity. I pointed them to a database of these kinds of images, and the designer chose the one they thought would work best as a book cover.

    The book has both negative and positive aspects and I think the current subtitle reflects that. It’s far from simply a criticism of string theory. But the editors and I felt that the subtitle should both indicate what the book was about and not be mealy-mouthed. The current version agressively leads with the controversial part of what I am saying, but I’m happy to stand behind that.

  14. a.spring says:

    So, who have you signed for the movie version?

  15. rof says:

    I agree with Anti-Quantoken. The occurrence of the word “Failure” in the title will help sales in this case. String theory has become a household name, so news of its failure will be more striking to bookshop browsers than the idea of yet another history of physics.

    A google search for “Woit” and “Failure” produces a coincidentally relevant result.

    Incidentally, it would be nice if somebody (you’re somebody, Peter) collected the reactions of string theorists and non-string theorists to the book and presented them side by side on the web. Not for the sake of rebutting their criticisms, but just to see if there really is a statistically significant correlation between being a string theorist and hating the book. Presenting the reactions of non-string theorists who are competent to address the issue (Penrose is good for a start) will allow you to refute the argument which will be presented by string theorists, namely that only string theorists are intelligent enough to make judgments about these matters.

  16. D R Lunsford says:

    Well done Peter!


  17. woit says:


    I edited your comment so it has the correct link to the page I think you were mentioning. Pretty funny. As far as I know, D. Woit is not a relative.

  18. Chris says:

    I’m with the Anti-Quantoken. The cover art looks good and the word “failure” guarantees sales! I’m buying a copy when it comes out.

    Do you plan on providing an online version before book publication? Seems the thing to do nowadays.

  19. woit says:


    Cape is a commercial publisher and trying to make some money at this, so I’m sure they don’t want me making the book freely available. When it gets closer to the publication date perhaps I’ll get together a web-page for the book which may include some material from it, such as the table of contents and preface.

  20. Johannes Weickert says:

    I’m very pleased to learn you’re working on this book! It’s going to be near the top of my reading list.

  21. Pingback: Not Even Wrong | Cosmic Variance

  22. anon says:


    Mr. President, you know what a good Junior Republican I’ve been, what with voting for you (if I could), and poo-pooing global warming and women’s brains and liberal commies… Now, it is I who needs your help. Could I borrow Carl Rove for a small job? The background of a certain book author needs some clarification in the media. I don’t mean to take Carl away from the Cindy Sheehan case. It would just be a part-time loaner.


    Well, of course, Lubos. You’ve earned it. Maybe, in return, you could give a talk at my Bible Studies class about the latest Physics theories: String theory, Intelligent Design, etc.

  23. Following the horizontal line between NOT and EVEN, and about 1/8 from the right margin, there is a decay event of a neutral particle into a pair of charged ones. The V of the pair points towards the main collision point, so one can assume the particle has been produced there and travelled by about one half of the width of the word WRONG. Just for curiosity, can anyone identify it?

    (ah, does compulsive means the same that compulsory? I guess not.)

  24. Tom Weidig says:

    Hi Peter,

    I like the title page fine.

    But I am not sure putting up a comment by Roger Penrose is appropriate.

    In fact, he is a good example of exactly what you seem to be fighting against namely theorists that go wild and spread theories that are not even wrong.

    Roger Penrose has put forward a theory of consciousness that is not even wrong (to a greater extent than string theory), and especially his “partner-in-crime” Stuart Hameroff has been pushing their agenda with a lack of any reasonable sense of scientific enquiry.

    On the other hand Roger Penrose’s achievement in standard theoretical physics are of course outstanding.

    Best wishes,

  25. Who says:

    (ah, does compulsive means the same that compulsory? I guess not.)

    no, it means “Compelling reading”
    but it does not sound good to some people to have two consecutive gerunds (“…ing”).

    Penrose made a bad literary choice to get away from “two ings in a row”

    He should have bitten the style bullet and said
    “Compelling reading”

  26. woit says:

    Hi Tom,

    On the whole, how the book gets promoted is mainly up to the publisher, although if I really disagreed with what they were doing and told them so, I’m sure they’d change it. In this case I’m happy to have Penrose’s support and think it will probably be effective in getting many people’s attention.

    A point I continually have to make is that I’m in no way opposed to people working on or promoting speculative ideas that are “not even wrong”. At this point in history, particle physics desperately needs new ideas. Any really new idea is likely to start off in a form where it is so poorly understood that no one knows exactly what its implications are or whether it will ever lead to solid, testable, permanent scientific knowledge. Penrose engages in lots of different sorts of such speculation, and I suspect that most of this ultimately won’t lead to anything, although in some cases he may end up having really been on to something (my best bet would be on twistor theory, where some day someone may figure out that it is a very important piece of the story of how internal and space-time symmetries get unified).

    The problem with any particular “not even wrong” speculation only arises if it completely takes over a field and drives out other competing attempts to come up with new speculative ideas. I don’t think any of Penrose’s work shows any signs of causing this sort of problem.

  27. LM says:

    Hey Peter, is your publisher going to send Lubos a review copy?

  28. woit says:

    I was going to make sure they sent the other LM a review copy, but he has just posted a review of the book on his blog, so I guess I don’t need to. At least I get two stars….

  29. Lubos Motl says:

    Congrats, Peter. It’s a great idea to earn some bucks, although not exactly the most moral one. Based on the discussions on your blog, it is pretty clear that there are thousands of morons who are dumb enough that they will like the kind of arguments like “string theory is like intelligent design” and clap their hands. Well, I’ve encountered many of them already, and assuming that at least 10% of them can waste 50 bucks for an apparently useless book, you’re gonna be a bit rich. 😉

    One more thing: you don’t believe that the string theorists are never asking important, conceptual, and philosophical questions, do you?

  30. woit says:

    Hi Lubos,

    Judging from traffic on my weblog, a large fraction of the people who buy the book may be string theorists, and while there are a lot of them, I fear that there aren’t enough to make me rich.

    Not sure what your last question is about. Sure I think string theorists are asking important, conceptual and even philosophical questions, but just don’t think they’re coming up with good answers or even promising ways of getting good answers.

  31. Wolfgang says:


    I see your book listed in the category: Social Science and Popular Culture.
    I find this pretty funny, but I doubt that you have any influence on that ?

  32. Lubos Motl says:

    Dear Peter,

    if you were relying upon string theorists as your future customers, your chances to become rich would be poor indeed. 😉 Maybe you should lower your idea about the readers; they will have IQ lower by a few orders of magnitude than what you would like to believe. Your readers will be likes of DR Lunsford. 😉 In other words, complete morons.

    As you know, I consider your opinions about the mathematical framework of string theory and its ability to generate new physical insights and predictions to be roughly as important as the noise generated by the chimps in zoo. But what I want to comment on is your proposal that the physicists should study “many other ideas” such as Chern-Simons theory – to go beyond the framework of the Standard Model.

    You seem to misunderstand the difference between mathematics and physics completely. Chern-Simons theory is simply not a theory that is designed as a competitor of string theory to unify the known physics.

    Chern-Simons theory is a theory that admits a similar type of (quantum-field-theoretical) description as some physical theories, but that apparently lacks the physical strength to have anything to do with the observed particle physics.

    Chern-Simons theory is just an effective description of D-branes in topological string theory. A small subsector of an unrealistic vacuum of string theory. A few numbers. Discrete math. Nothing.

    The main problem of yours is that you have completely lost your knowledge of physics and especially the idea which mathematical ideas may be relevant for which physics. When you talk about the “wide range of ideas” that physicists should be talking when they try to go beyond GR+SM, you obviously don’t know what you’re talking about.

    There exist no general conceptual frameworks to surpass the existing theory except for string theory, and if someone tries to force people to work on these non-existent ideas, he is doing the same job as the Intelligent Designers. It just can’t work. There exist “small” ideas how new phenomena behind the Standard Model could look like, and this is what phenomenologists work on. But there is no unifying deep structure except for string theory. It’s not a theorem yet but it may well become one next year.

    You will never be capable to understand why these alternatives to string theory can’t work – because you’re probably just too old for these things and you have not learned these important technical things in time. But you should at least try to understand that there is a crucial gap in your knowledge that makes all your “big conclusions” totally worthless.

    You just can’t judge string theory without knowing anything about its math, its physical implications, and its uniqueness, and if you try to make big conclusions anyway, then you’re a crackpot.

    Best wishes

  33. Who says:

    oh hello Lubos,
    Please tell us again why the loop and dynamical triangulations approaches to quantum gravity cannot possibly be right. It sounds better and better each time you explain.

    waiting in rapt attention,


  34. Lubos Motl says:

    Dear “who”,

    we have wasted roughly 100 times more time with these stupidities than what I would find appropriate.

    See some standard texts such as


    and the preprints cited therein.


  35. The Anti-Lubos says:

    Does anyone, anywhere like Lubos? Just as a person, I mean. I can’t imagine him as anything except universally despised, on a personal level.

  36. Kea says:


    Could you give us a sneak preview, or is that also in the hands of the publisher?

  37. Kea says:

    “Does anyone, anywhere like Lubos? Just as a person, I mean.”

    I like Lubos. He seems like an honest guy.

  38. Lubos Motl says:

    Thanks, Kea. You’ll always find a place in my heart. 😉

  39. Lubos Motl says:

    And yes, I definitely want my copy (and 10% of the royalties for making advertisements to you and encouraging the readers of limited intelligence to be interested in the debate). However, I am not sure whether you’re brave enough and ready to see your work being deconstructed, Peter. 😉

  40. Quantoken says:


    Unlike many of the peers in your camp, like Kaku, who must have made tons of money selling books and going to TV programming claiming super string theory explains everything, my judgement is this is a money losing deal for Peter to spend all these time and effort to write a book that not many would buy. He could have spent the time doing something else and make more money. But he is doing a public service by salvaging a few pity souls who could otherwise waste a lifetime pursuing something unfruitful.

    Why don’t you write your own book and make a few quick bucks, too, Lubos? It’s fashionable every one else in your camp is ready doing it? Mean while, by Peter’s own admission, through intelligent selection of parents, he probably doesn’t give a damn about the small amount of royalty from selling a few thousand books. Go get a better life if you are envy of that, Lubos.


  41. Luboš Motl says:

    Let me say that the ideal primary reason to write a book should be that the author has something new and interesting to say. Money may be fun, Quantoken, but you can’t buy the most important things for them. On the other hand: yes, when certain conditions are gonna be satisfied, it would become irresistable to write things for which a book is the only appropriate format.

  42. Arun says:

    Congratulations! I look forward to reading your book!

  43. Gordon says:

    Thank you for writing another book on the subject, and I will
    read it.

    But I am curious. If there is not string theory, what does one
    expect to find at energies of 10^30 eV or so…

  44. D R Lunsford says:

    Lubos, you omitted “physical” questions (of course).


  45. Interpretor says:

    Lubos said:

    “You will never be capable to understand why these alternatives to string theory can’t work – because you’re probably just too old for these things and you have not learned these important technical things in time. But you should at least try to understand that there is a crucial gap in your knowledge that makes all your “big conclusions? totally worthless.

    You just can’t judge string theory without knowing anything about its math, its physical implications, and its uniqueness, and if you try to make big conclusions anyway, then you’re a crackpot.”


    I have wasted 10 years of my life learning this crap and now you are trying to spoil the party. I will be left without funding, hype or hope. You are a worthless old whistle blower.

  46. Luboš Motl says:

    Dear Interpretor,

    Peter Woit himself knows that what you write is complete rubbish. I have absolutely no reasons to fool myself, and your comments about the career and hype are irrelevant because I am planning no career whatsoever – especially because of other reasons to change the environment. My opinions are as pure and independent as you can get in this partially corrupt world.

    I know that it may be annoying for many to hear it so often, but it is really incredible what kind of trash – both intellectually and morally – is contributing similar anonymous and sometimes less anonymous comments to Peter Woit’s blog. I don’t want to idealize Peter himself, but I am sure Peter Woit himself must feel to vomit when he reads comments like yours all the time. You should be ashamed.


  47. Peter says:

    Well, I’m able to easily control any nausea generated by the endless Lubos/anti-Lubos comments, but I do wish there wasn’t so much of this. Lubos brings a lot of this on himself with his tirades, but you shouldn’t encourage him.

    We both have strong beliefs, and aren’t in this for the money (you’d have to be pretty stupid to go into theoretical physics for the money). For better or worse, this new internet technology allows us to make the case for our opposing viewpoints (which aren’t even always opposing, we seem to at least partially agree about the anthropic/landscape stuff). Up to you to decide who is making the most sense.

  48. If you guys want to talk about quantum gravity please drop by blog (click on my name). I just started the blog recently and learning to keep it steady. (I deleted some comments left by some of you accidently-sorry)

  49. Quantum_Ranger says:

    Peter, the cover picture is actually cover art!
    This picture has been used on many occations, it’s’s convergence by Jackson Pollock!

    I have the same image on the cover of a book entitled:How the Universe Works, which is an Open university course here in the UK.

    I also believe the picture was dubbed “Particle Pollack” by Marcelo Gleiser?..used in the Stephen Hawkings ‘Universe’ documentry..or it may have been Franck Close lecture:Cosmic Onion.

    It is a definate must to invoke abstract thinking into a very “abstract” Subject.

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