The Hype Goes On

Yet another example of the seemingly infinite supply of bogus “evidence for string theory” is a recent Slashdot posting about a claim to have measured a change in time of the proton/electron mass ratio. It is based on a New Scientist article that states:

If confirmed, the result could force some physicists to radically rethink their theories. It would also provide support for string theory, which predicts extra spatial dimensions.

The original PRL paper about this is here and it is free of anything about string theory. The string theory nonsense appears to come from the following press release, which says:

Standard physics does not have an explanation as to why Mp/me has this value, nor can it provide an explanation as to why it would vary. However, superstring and M-theories do provide qualitative explanations for the Mp/me value and also predict possible variations of the fundamental constants.

It’s unclear where the author got this particular piece of incorrect string theory hype. Not from Lubos evidently, who says that according to string theory the proton/electron mass ratio is constant, unless it isn’t.

Update: This particular piece of nonsensical string theory hype even makes it to USA Today:

Such changes to fundamental constants would lend support to modern-day versions of string theory, which has varying constants built into its basic equations. String theory holds that on the very smallest distance scales possible, strings or loops of energy vibrating at different frequencies are the components of sub-atomic particles. String theory has also been a hot topic in physics for decades among theorists looking for a better explanation than “that’s just the way it is” of why fundamental constants have their fundamental values. So far, string theory has more critics than results, it should be noted.

Update: The hype even makes it into Nature which is normally better at avoiding this kind of nonsense:

But various versions of string theory suggest that extra dimensions occupied by a particle might affect properties such as its mass. Subtle changes in these dimensions could make physical constants vary slightly, explains Barrow. However, “there’s absolutely no observational evidence to support this vast array of ideas,” cautions Fabian. The paucity of hard evidence for string theory may be partly responsible for the upsurge in interest in variable constants, Barrow adds; results like Ubachs’ could eventually provide a good way to assess the ideas. “I’m sure we’ll see some theory papers about this,” he says. “I might write one myself.”

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72 Responses to The Hype Goes On

  1. knotted string says:

    I subscribe to New Scientist. It’s useful and sometimes you see outraged letters about the articles it prints, in later issues.

    You quote the passage that has been in every new scientist article about stringy stuff for 20 years:

    ‘If confirmed, the result could force some physicists to radically rethink their theories. It would also provide support for string theory, which predicts extra spatial dimensions.’

    Journalists have a list of 7 things to remember in a story (who, where, when…) the most essential being WHY?

    Don’t go trying to attack them for just doing their job, which is to report orthodoxy like strings. In order to do that, it has to invent some reason that seems plausible. Is that OK?

  2. Lubos Motl says:

    These journalists often seem to confuse “new physics” and “string theory”. An evolving constant of the Standard Model would surely be new physics. At low energies, it could probably be described by some new light rolling scalar fields as long as the effects are local.

    Such a light rolling scalar field would not be incompatible with string theory. Various vacua of string theory give us lots of different scalars – sometimes scalars that are hard to get rid of. But being new physics that does not contradict string theory is something very different from being evidence for string theory.

    Peter humiliates my uncertainty about the question whether the SM parameters must be constant. I think that they are but I don’t have a proof. Do you have a proof in either way? This question can clearly be answered only once we hav the full theory that includes these questions.

    I believe that they are constant because of two reasons: qualitative and quantitative ones. A qualitative reason is Occam’s razor. A quantitative reason is that if there were some freedom for the parameters to vary, the expected change per 12 billion years would be larger than the tiny percentage that they measure. Explaining such a slow evolution would be a new hierarchy-like problem.

    But of course such new problems may exist. We have seen quite a few of them.

  3. Jimbo says:

    The reality of NS is, that altho they have GREAT artwork, and sexy hyped cover stories, they have consistently tended to exaggerate the veracity (if any) of scientific research at the frontiers.
    I could quote various examples, but the one that stands out in my mind is from 5 yrs ago, when NS did a story about a prof. from U.Conn who was working on a laser-based technique to create closed time-like curves in the laboratory, which would enable transport of subatomic particles forward/backward in time.
    Not only has the research delivered nothing, but its basis was refuted by theorists from the Tufts Cosmology Institute 3 yrs later. To read the article, tho, one came away with visions of the the Morlocks eating the Eloi….NS is great eye candy, but that’s as far as it goes.

  4. Luboš – Is that really you? What you say is not only perceptive but balanced and polite. I particularly like your point about a new hierarchy problem – but it would be nice if some theory (string or otherwise) could sweep up all the hierarchy problems at once.

  5. MathPhys says:


    For a man who refuses to acknowledge its exitence on his own blog, you are surely a keen read of, and participant in discussions on this one.

  6. The Great Landscaper says:

    Notice that if the cosmological constant is small thanks to a fine tuning done once and for all (as happens e.g. in the landscape anthropic scenario) then this experimental result is wrong, because a variation of m_proton/m_electron would lead to a large unobserved variation in the cosmological constant.

    Confirming this experimental result would kill the landscape anthropic interpretation. I do not know how Popper would classify something that can be disproved but cannot be proved.

  7. Chris Oakley says:

    Like CIP, it worries me to see a balanced, reasonable post here from Luboš. Is he going soft? The business I worked in for the majority of my working life (investment banking) works on the principle of Survival of the Fittest. Unfit (read non-profitable) genes are ruthlessly eliminated. Academia OTOH seems to work on the principle of eliminating the most interesting genes, leaving a slurry of talentless, inoffensive morons to keep the whole thing going. Does Luboš fear that if he does not keep his head down then he too might be eliminated, I wonder?

  8. knotted string says:

    Lubos has added two new ‘political stickers’ to his blog:


    “Say No to Political Correctness”

  9. Chris W. says:

    I do not know how Popper would classify something that can be disproved but cannot be proved. a scientific theory that makes universal assertions, ie, almost any theory of substantial scientific interest. Popper made this abundantly clear in his writings.

    His position was echoed many years ago by Robert Geroch, when he remarked that he couldn’t imagine what a “proof” of a physical theory would look like. Furthermore, he said this in a book aimed at a general audience, General Relativity from A to B.

  10. Um…Is our knowledge of red-shift nearly anywhere as reliable as our knowledge of labratory H2 absorbtion lines? Isn’t it a bit like comparing apples to oranges?

    I mean, we measure red-shift by assuming the relationship between spectral lines remains constant. But then we introduce an observation that says the relationship between spectral lines is not constant, then how are we to calibrate red-shift?

    Something has to give, and I think it will require refining our understanding of red-shifts.

  11. Lubos Motl says:

    Dear Great Landscaper,

    although what you write may sound controversial, I tend to agree with you that according to everything we know, a measurably evolving proton/electron mass ratio would imply a much more dramatic evolution of the vacuum energy (imagine that the masses of the light particles to the fourth power contribute) unless there exists some more robust cancellation mechanism that keeps vacuum energy tiny. Your point is pretty good, by the way.

    Such an evolving ratio could indeed contradict the current landscape paradigm in which all moduli are stabilized throughout most of the cosmological evolution. It would also contradict my preconceptions about constants being constant, however, without claiming that it’s too important. 🙂 I still hope that both the anthropic principle as well as the conjectured evolving constants will be superseded by future research.

    Chris Oakley: when I read most of your texts, among which the review of the NER book is the softest one, my peace usually disappears. 😉


  12. Well, I can’t help rememebering the paper published in Naturwissenschaften (1931, I think) by Hans Bethe and colleauges. Hope that people will find the story amusing. In that paper it is stated that at absolute zero electron is not completely frozen, but still moves on Bohr’s orbit, i.e. according to Eddington, has 1/alpha degrees of freedom, alpha being the fine structure constant. Since there are protons also, the article said, we need to add the same amount of degrees of freedom, according to Dirac’s Hole Theory. In all, we have now 2/alpha degrees of freedom. Now, in order to reach absolute zero, we have to take away from our neutral system -(2/alpha – 1) degrees of freedom. Authors say, and I remember that very well – “We have subtracted 1 to not to account for a rotational degree of freedom” – real perl.
    Therefore, authors state, the temperature for the absolute zero is -(2/alpha -1) (Unit-Centigrade). Plugging in -273, authors obtained for a fine structure constant the value alpha = 1/137 which as the stated, “is in the remarkable agreement with the data”.

    Naturwissenschaften did not get the hoax and actually published the article; Zommerfeld, Bethe’s supervisor, was furious. For a little while.

    Sometimes I wonder, are these discussions of time-space-orientation-number of dimensions dependence of fundamental constants (have no idea why electron’s or proton’s mass or fine structure constant are fundamental, better than any other mass or coupling) jokes like Bethe’s, or people really believe in what they say? I mean, either we have experimental confirmation, or experimental discrepancy, or some other, fashion independent way to confirm or reject the statements made, or we don’t call ourselves physicists any more.

    Knowing virtually nothing about Strings and M-Theory (believe that I’m in majority here), and no personal offense to anyone, what I hear about “Landscape Theory of Everything etc” makes me think that the whole idea what physics is and what it’s suppose to be is being redesigned.

    Pretty sad. Well, at least Bethe & Company honestly admitted that their paper was joke and nothing else – they did not claim that the way of thinking/building up Physics must be changed. It was assumed as a common sense back then…

  13. MathPhys says:

    I remember the time (almost 10 years ago) when I looked up one of Mike Duff’s review papers on dualities, dualities of dualities, branes inside branes, etc, etc.

    It was the first time I looked up a stringy paper in almost as many years, and I wanted to catch up a bit. I distinctly remember seriously wondering if that’s science fiction.

    I thought the best words to describe what I was reading were the lyrics of a song that went like:

    A circle in a spiral.
    Like a wheel within a wheel.
    Never ending or beginning.
    On an ever spinning reel.

    I actually now admire the baroque creativity and imagination of the author and his colleagues, but I also cannot say it’s physics.

    To me, these are very elaborate mathematical structures, which can be very pretty to look at. But (and I know I’m preaching to the converted) physics must, must make contact with some experiment.

    Strings has moved too far from experiments.

  14. WebGuy says:

    Hey, for someone who has mastered physics, do me a favor:
    Fix the frames alignment at the bottome of this layout… Sheesh.. 😉

  15. bethe beck riezler. Yes, it should not have passed referral, even plain reading, because 273 is an arbitrary point and both celsius and absolute are arbitrary scales (the zero absolute is not arbitrary; to say that the frozen point of water is 273 is the arbitrary thing). I would suspect that the editor was in the joke or authorised it.

    By the way, we have recently found the equation for the fine structure constant and it is 1/135.28. Sorry for all the guys betting for 1/137.00x

    But wait, everyone knows that the inverse of fine structure constant is got using the
    unix command host

  16. (That last host command is supposed to be executed in the terminal, not to click on it. Info on closest hosts will be appreciated, just for curiosity)

    Now, I found that the paper of Bethe et al has been photo-scanned into a biography of Guido Back but in spanish, so english googlers could miss it. It is at
    in page

  17. Chris W. says:


    Never mind the lack of contact with experiment. Strictly from a theoretical point of view a lot of this stuff is obtuse and ugly. However, it’s a great playground for technical virtuosity and pedantic elaboration, for those who are happy to base a career on nothing but that.

  18. J.F. Moore says:

    Peter – sorry to be off topic, and if I missed the news, but could you clarify about when your book will be available? Today is the date that lists publisher availability in the US, but it doesn’t appear to be so, alas…

  19. woit says:

    Last I heard publication date was June 1 in the UK, September in the U.S. If I get better information about this, I’ll post it here.

  20. Lurker says:

    Hi J.F. Moore,

    Not Even Wrong : The Failure of String Theory & the Continuing Challenge to Unify the Laws of Physics (Hardcover)

    Notice the date:

    Hardcover: 256 pages
    Publisher: Jonathan Cape (April 25, 2006)
    Language: English
    ISBN: 0224076051


    And availability: Usually ships within 1 to 3 weeks.

    Best regards,


  21. woit says:

    I think Amazon has the wrong information, and today is not the publication date. For one thing, I haven’t seen any books yet myself….

  22. Anon says:


    As publicity and giving an idea about the book, perhaps you could post small excerpts from the book over the next several weeks. That will give others an idea of the level of technical stuff plus content.

  23. J.F. Moore says:

    September! That’s a long wait. Thanks for the information though.

    Lurker – If you read my comment all the way through to my second sentence, you would have noticed that I already had that (apparently wrong) information. Thanks for the effort, though.

  24. Eli Rabett says:

    Minor point, but the Celcius scale is now defined by absolute zero and the triple point of water, which, at least for a chemist, is not so arbitrary.

  25. Toothpaste says:

    so like what does “compulsive reading Roger Penrose” mean?

  26. amanda says:

    Maybe this is only partially relevant to the topic 🙂 but it seems that arxiv trackbacks from The Reference Frame are no longer supported, see

  27. Lubos Motl says:

    Dear Amanda,

    I’ve never had any automatic trackbacks – it’s not supported by I am only submitting trackbacks manually when I say something that could be useful for the readers of the articles.


  28. woit says:

    I figured Lubos wasn’t submitting a trackback in that case since the only substantive thing in his posting was a link to the discussion of the Witten paper over here, and I appear to still be banned from trackbacks to hep-th.

    I actually have no idea what is going on with arXiv trackbacks these days, and based on previous experience, it’s not clear that it’s worth my time to inquire with them about it. A trackback to a posting about a paper (Schroer’s) that was in the “physics”, not “hep-th” category did appear, but no trackbacks to postings about papers on hep-th have appeared. Maybe moderators for other sections of the arXiv are not banning links to what I write, just Jacques Distler, who is still intent on enforcing a “no criticism of string theory policy”, but who knows what is going on there…

  29. Lubos Motl says:

    Sorry, Peter, but the main substantive thing in my short article were links to my two previous articles about the Langlands duality. The second most important thing in the short article are comments of Xi Yin about the relative depth of the arithmetic and the geometric Langlands program, and attempts to embed the arithmetic program into a new version of string theory.

    A link to a semi-relevant mostly crackpot discussion here was just a complement, and it would be a good idea for you not to overestimate your importance by two orders of magnitude.

  30. woit says:

    OK, Lubos, I’ll continue to look forward to your highly insightful and well-informed discussion of the Langlands program.

  31. Lubos Motl says:

    Let me emphasize one more the critical difference in our understanding of the trackbacks.

    I view the trackbacks as a potentially useful service for the readers of the articles who may find a fast summary of some relevant issues, including those that are not discussed in the articles. It may be particularly useful months or years after the articles are submitted and when the readers have already forgotten a large portion of these issues. Consequently, I am only submitting the trackbacks if I feel that there is something relevant in my texts that the readers may actively want to see.

    On the other hand, you try to submit trackbacks whenever you write something nasty (i.e. all the time) that is safely irrelevant and uninteresting not only for the actual readers of the articles – but also for all other people with IQ above 90 for that matter. In other words, your goal of submitting the trackbacks is to confuse the readers and spread your and your crackpot fans’ moronic propaganda and silliness.

    And that makes a difference. 😉

  32. Pingback: Not Even Wrong » Blog Archive » Revealing the Hidden Nature of Space and Time

  33. amanda says:

    Dear Lubos,
    I was only joking 🙂 . I’m sure Jacques D would never dream of stopping your trackbacks.

  34. Lubos Motl says:

    Of course that he would. He tries to treat everyone in the same way, especially everyone who is not Jacques Distler himself :-), especially if this everyone sometimes irrirates Jacques as some of my postings surely do. 😉

  35. Plato says:

    Lubos Motl:These journalists often seem to confuse “new physics” and “string theory”. An evolving constant of the Standard Model would surely be new physics. At low energies, it could probably be described by some new light rolling scalar fields as long as the effects are local.

    I think Peter here has always stated that any derivation of string theory must arise from the current standard model, and your saying, that string theory does in fact extend from the standard model theoretically?

    So any new physics would in essence arise from the standard model so too then it could be called string theory?

    So considering IceCube, how would string theory apply?

  36. knotted string says:

    ‘confuse the readers and spread your and your crackpot fans’ moronic propaganda and silliness’


    (1) Peter and his readers are countering stringy propaganda.

    (2) have you given up climate crackpottery yet?

    (3) Can you predict if and when when Jacques Distler will cease to be ‘subtly hostile’ to questions about string theory from his own students, let alone Peter; see


  37. woit says:


    Don’t know what happened, maybe Lubos decided to manually submit a trackback, maybe Jacques decided that Lubos was so insightful that he decided to add the trackback himself. Anyway, at this point there’s exactly one trackback to the new Kapustin/Witten paper, pointing to the commentary by Lubos. There’s none to the commentary here since Jacques evidently continues the ban on trackbacks to my blog from hep-th.

    I realize this is petty, and one shouldn’t take anonymous student evaluations very seriously since they’re often off-the-wall, but the one linked to in the previous comment is pretty hilarious, it’s from a student in Jacques’s string theory class:

    “Jacques Distler is quite possibly the worst physics professor I have ever had. He has the uncanny ability to make even the simplest concepts utterly incomprehensible. He is a true intellectual snob, and he treats most questions with open hostility. Unless you have a PhD in math and already know string theory, you will not learn anything from Distler. String theory is hard, but not as hard as Distler wants it to be.”

  38. Chris Oakley says:

    This anonymous student should show more respect. I am sure that there are those who pay handsomely for the privilege of learning from the Flaming Spear in the String God’s left hand.

  39. Benni says:

    When one reads the discussion there:
    I think one cannot state distler as snob or attacking or unfriendly whatsoever.

    I think that he tried really to discuss with Peter and ended his discussion with the words:

    Your anti-string theory screeds have engendered a strong reaction in some quarters.
    Personally, I find them simply boring. They are an uninspired rehashing of the same set of complaints voiced a decade and a half earlier, minus the wit and vigour of the original.
    I sat down this evening and reread this entire comment thread. I have come to the conclusion that our discussion has degenerated quite far enough. If you want to discuss the physics issues involved, please feel free to respond, and I will be happy to lend whatever further insight I can. If, however, your interest is simply to post anti-String Theory diatribes, I would ask that you post them on your blog, rather than here.

    I think, seeing the above discussion, one can say, that distler is far away from beiing unfriendly or aggressive.

    and this was the beginning of “not even wrong”!

  40. Nigel says:

    Benni, I notice Jacques didn’t delete your comments from his blog! I wonder why? 😉

    Jacques was charming when he deleted my constructive and helpful suggestion on his blog and then gave a non-sensical reason over on Cosmic Variance!


    It is just as well I’m used to censorship and so I don’t take a mere comment deletion as a personal insult

  41. Benni says:

    Nigel wrote
    >Benni, I notice Jacques didn’t delete your comments from his blog!

    no! Jacques did not delete me. Instead, he put me into his killfile. No one with the username “Benni” can post comments on his blog anymore!

  42. Bert Schroer says:

    I only know Distler in his role as a hep-th moderator, but my little experience casts serious doubts on his objectivity.
    Several years ago I posted a paper about the protagogist of QFT QFT Pascual Jordan on hep-th (hep-th/0303241). He is (politically) a very controversial figure, but I found some really breathtaking connections of some of his (at that time unaccomplished) ideas to ongoing conceptual developments in QFT.
    About a month ago I extracted a shorter version, updated it with new scientific remarks of interest to QFTs and posted it in physics (physics/0603095) since the context was a bit more political (which only led to a change of title and introduction). For this reason I found it more appropriated to post it in the physics and society part with the idea of making a cross listing (it was the only crossing, so there was no abuse of the cross listing system involved). Well, the moderator took it off with the argument that its content is not related to particle physics. This of course creates a grave inconsistency in the moderating system with the past decision where the content had its main listing in hep-th (and now it cannot even be cross listed).
    I would like to point out that the moderators of an international archive cannot act as the prolonged arm of its government and reject cross listing paper because it addresses a problem which has political ramifications. It would be unimaginable to have an international server located in Europe which rejects cross listing papers from US contributers because in addition to the relevant content for particle physics there is something which the moderator does not like.
    Benny, in this context it does not interest me whether Distler (as he is often painted in this weblog by others) is a foot soldier of string theory or not. At issue is that freedom and democracy which his government preaches everyday to others. His role is not that of a hegemonic nanny but that of an objective servant of a world community.
    I should add that I also completely agree with Tony (see the Langlands… discussion) that the Witten-Kapustin paper is mathematical physics and should have appeared as a cross listing in hep-th. The reason why this is not done is sociological not scientific (e.g. the moderator may argue that most of the potential readers are customers of hep-th and at this late stage they may even get confused about the authors having changes their motivations).

  43. Benni says:

    physics/0603095 is not a borderline case. One can clearly state, that it has nothing to do with hep-th.

    In my opinion, the moderation rules of the section “physics and society” should be more strict.
    There maybe relevant and interesting studies, which investigate eg. social networks with physical methods.
    But Arxiv should not be the place where one can express his political opinions or rantings. Only papers acceptable in scientific journals of an exact science should arrive at arxiv org. physics/0603095 is in my opinion not of a scientific value that is high enough.

  44. Bert Schroer says:

    what about my first paper which was even posted on hep-th and not just cross listed? Was the monitor too lenient?

  45. Benni says:

    the first paper is in hep-th. Although I think it is more appropriate for physics.hist-ph where is the correct place for many similar papers. See
    I think your paper is at the wrong place.

    BTW, I think the section physics.pop-ph should be either moderated or shut down!

  46. Who says:

    that the Witten-Kapustin paper is mathematical physics and should have appeared as a cross listing in hep-th. The reason why this is not done is sociological not scientific (e.g. the moderator may argue that most of the potential readers are customers of hep-th and at this late stage they may even get confused about the authors having changes their motivations).

    sounds interesting. perhaps you could spell that out more detail for those of us like myself benefitting from explicitness.

    It sounds as if you are saying that the W-K paper, for example, is really math-ph, it is not high-energy particle theory. But the habitual readers of hep-th have become so accustomed to reading mathematics and believing it is particle physics that it would CONFUSE them if you abruptly tried to sort things out and apply the categories as defined. They might wonder “What’s wrong, isn’t Witten doing particle physics any more? Has he switched fields?” The hypothetical moderator doesn’t want to confuse the customers, so he has a reason to classify papers incorrectly.

    I suppose that is what you mean. It’s a droll reflection on the situation that has developed.

  47. Aaron Bergman says:

    Bert, you’re aware that Jacques is Canadian, right?

    Speaking only for myself, the first paper has some physics content. The second has absolutely none. I can’t discern any insconsistency here. The interests of a “world community” would hardly be served by allowing extended political argument on hep-th.

  48. Chris Oakley says:


    Being typeset with TEX and having references at the end does not make something a scientific paper. physics/0603095 is more the sort of thing I would expect to see in the New York Times with a title like, “The folly of invading Iraq: a physicist’s view”

  49. Bert Schroer says:

    To Who says,
    yes you got it correctly, but there is something to be added. Another reason why hep-th is used for math-ph. communications is that this site is the best for reaching the majority of mathematicians. Most of them believe that hep-th is the direct source where they can get the fresh and mathematically raw data for new conjectures in their most original metaphorical unspoiled form, and in order to make it a genuine market place they also sometimes post their more refined versions there. In fact most of them believe that we particle physicists live in our best of all times. They don’t realize that they are erecting their golden castles on our physical ruins.
    My remark about reaching one’s readers by maintaining certain traditions was not really a criticism. And to be honest, given the sociological situation as it is, I am not totally surprized that my sociological/historical article was not even permitted a cross listing (it was never intended to be posted in hep-th).
    I was just thinking that the same argument of having one’s readers at a certain site which is conceded to most contributers would also apply to me.
    No Chris, the article is not suited for the NYT. I think it is of interest to my particle physics colleagues to know that the the protagonist of our area was a rightwing belligerent character (just like Motl). He believed in the Heraklitean tradition that a war once in a while is necessarry to keep up progress. What really did him in was that by the time the Nazis came to power he genuinly thought that the “new order” of the “new state” was the sociological counterpart of the quantum revolution he initiated together with Born and Heisenberg and all by his own (and against the rest of the world) he created QFT in its modern form (bypassing configuration space from the beginning).
    I think it is interesting to know the main reason why after Einstein and Heisenberg one of the greatest physicists of the 20 century lost the chance to be proposed for a Nobel prize and became the “unsung hero of QFT”. I wrote this article in the Einstein year and of course I was thinking that Jordan lost the Nobel prize because he was living (politically speaking) in the wrong time: if he could be time shifted to the presence he may not only have gotten the Nobel prize but may have joined the neocons and played an impotant role in justifying the present war. A great man but a rightwing nut, life is complicated.
    Chris why do you think I should be prevented to indicate the existence of this article to my colleagues who never look into physics/?

  50. JC says:


    (slightly offtopic)

    During the Nazi era, were there any strong reasons as to why Heisenberg stayed in Germany? Was he ever threatened with expulsion to Dachau by the SS, for using relativity theory (classified as “jewish physics” by the Nazis)?

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