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Torn Between Physics and Philosophy

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Hello,
I've finished my first semester at University of Calgary in an Honours Astrophysics program. I received an A+ in all of my classes (except a B- 'Chemistry for Engineers', I HATED IT). I took PHYS 227: Classical Physics, MATH 211: Linear Algebra, AMAT 217: Calculus, and PHIL 201: Mind, Matter and God.

I have always enjoyed and excelled in physics and math (not the popular science stuff) since I was in Junior High School, and it seems like a great career that I would be happy to pursue. But there is something nagging at the back of my mind that it is not the correct decision, and that I should take Philosophy. I do not have a romanticized view of either fields and I understand how rigorous they both are within their own realms, yet I see Philosophy as being more fundamental than Physics, and I don't know why, but I feel like I'm wasting my time if I am not thinking about the real fundamentals of everything.

I got top of my class in all my Physics/Math courses and I really seem to have a natural ability for understanding Physics and Math, but it seems it is the same for Philosophy. My Philosophy professor told me that I have been writing graduate-level work in her first-year course and that she was blown away. She said I have the best philosophical mind shes seen in years and she sighed when I told her my major, "Don't waste your life on numbers".

Anyways, sorry for not being concise but... my question is: How can I decide between choosing to pursue Physics and Philosophy? If I am to do anything useful in either field, which I hope to, I need to focus all of my efforts extraneously on one of them... there cannot be a compromise.
 

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  • #2
ZapperZ
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Why can't you double major in both?

BTW, that philosophy professor of yours who told you not to waste your life on "numbers" is clearly clueless on what physics is. I could ask you to tell her what Feynman said about philosophy, but I won't.

Zz.
 
  • #3
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Why can't you double major in both?

BTW, that philosophy professor of yours who told you not to waste your life on "numbers" is clearly clueless on what physics is. I could ask you to tell her what Feynman said about philosophy, but I won't.

Zz.
Right. Because the ability to make quantitative inferences on physical phenomena is a waste.
 
  • #4
G01
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I've known many people who have double majored in Philosophy and Physics. You should really consider the double major.

If that is not an option, then you should do whichever field of study interests you more. If your interests guide your decisions, you won't "waste your life" no matter the decision.

You should also consider what things you are more interested in learning. Do you care more about Why? (Philosophy) or What? Where? and How? (Science) Also keep in mind that while Philosophy tries to answer the Why? questions and science does not, you are not not going to get a definite, correct answer to most things in Philosophy.

So, ask yourself not only "What questions interest me more?" but also "What type of answers am I looking for?"
 
  • #5
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Or at the very least, major in physics and minor in philosophy.
 
  • #6
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I've always thought that majoring in philosophy kind of screws you up in a manner. I think it was Nash that once remarked how his math classes ruined his creativity, so he didn't attend. I'm not sure this applies much in maths and physics, but for philosophy it seems like it's much more relevant. Of course, you have to learn the basics of argumentation and logic and things like that, the terms, etc. so that you're able to 'talk the talk'. Beyond that, I think you can be a philosopher without getting a degree in it.

Some people say that in academia, for physics, you're not allowed to do anything new or original. Now I'm not so sure about the validity of this, but it seems like in philosophy this could be more true, or less, depending on how you look at it. It all depends on how other people feel about your work, which I would definitely hate.

You can read and write in your spare time and be a philosopher still, but you can't do the same with physics.
 
  • #7
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Hello,
I've finished my first semester at University of Calgary in an Honours Astrophysics program. I received an A+ in all of my classes (except a B- 'Chemistry for Engineers', I HATED IT). I took PHYS 227: Classical Physics, MATH 211: Linear Algebra, AMAT 217: Calculus, and PHIL 201: Mind, Matter and God.

I have always enjoyed and excelled in physics and math (not the popular science stuff) since I was in Junior High School, and it seems like a great career that I would be happy to pursue. But there is something nagging at the back of my mind that it is not the correct decision, and that I should take Philosophy. I do not have a romanticized view of either fields and I understand how rigorous they both are within their own realms, yet I see Philosophy as being more fundamental than Physics, and I don't know why, but I feel like I'm wasting my time if I am not thinking about the real fundamentals of everything.

I got top of my class in all my Physics/Math courses and I really seem to have a natural ability for understanding Physics and Math, but it seems it is the same for Philosophy. My Philosophy professor told me that I have been writing graduate-level work in her first-year course and that she was blown away. She said I have the best philosophical mind shes seen in years and she sighed when I told her my major, "Don't waste your life on numbers".

Anyways, sorry for not being concise but... my question is: How can I decide between choosing to pursue Physics and Philosophy? If I am to do anything useful in either field, which I hope to, I need to focus all of my efforts extraneously on one of them... there cannot be a compromise.
I feel like I am someone qualified to comment here. Before I decided with physics(and maybe math too), I had philosophy as a potential major. I've taken 3 philosophy courses, and have read a few books by plato/aristotle/lucretious/etc... and DID find them very interesting. However its important to remember this. You can kind of "be" a philosopher without a degree, or a lot of school. We all are philosophers in a sense that we all basically have a somewhat unique view of reality/life after death/existence/etc. In physics this isn't really the case. You can't just make up your own explanation of a phenomena. Something either works this way, or it doesn't.

Also if you have probably noticed, philosophy always changes when science reveals something new. In fact, now that I have taken 2 courses on ancient philosophy/intellectual history, it cannot be more evident that the history of philosophy(just like history in general) repeats itself every few decades or centuries with every new discovery in science.

I don't see what the problem would be double majoring in both, or even just getting a minor in philosophy. You can read all the philosophy that you want in your spare time, and honestly probably get the same "education" in philosophy by doing so....and of course debating constantly with others like Socrates, who just walked around Athens debating with anyone about pretty much anything. You can't, however, get a degree in philosophy and just read about physics to actually deeply understand it. As David Griffiths said(paraphrasing here) "I believe you can't really understand quantum mechanics unless you can do quantum mechanics."

Last thing...you really have many more options with a physics degree. You you can get a job in a variety of fields, and you can go to graduate school for physics/math/engineering. And not only this but physics attempts to explain how the universe really works through empiricism and the logic of mathematics. Philosophy will never give insight into what the universe is really like, it will only give speculation, and if that speculation happens to be shown true then it will be shown true by science.
 
  • #8
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Last thing...you really have many more options with a physics degree. You you can get a job in a variety of fields, and you can go to graduate school for physics/math/engineering.
Agreed. The few philosophy PhDs who manage to get a job in the field (academia) make the same salary out of school as undergrad engineers.
And not only this but physics attempts to explain how the universe really works through empiricism and the logic of mathematics. Philosophy will never give insight into what the universe is really like, it will only give speculation, and if that speculation happens to be shown true then it will be shown true by science.
I feel that I'm also qualified to comment here as a double major in mechanical engineering and philosophy. My philosophy major included required courses on formal logic through Godel and modern logic. My honors thesis was written on quantum mechanics and was co-read by the physics department.

What's written above about philosophy just isn't true. Philosophy is very rigorous and analytical - it's about rational argument and proof. Philosophy studies what the physics actually means. It studies the limits and assumptions of physics. What G01 said is also correct though in that you'll learn more from philosophy about what is a possible answer and what isn't a possible answer than you'll get the actual answers themselves.

As soon as you stop calculating and experimenting and start asking what the formulas of physics actually represent in the world, you're doing philosophy. If you ask why one mathematical formulation should be preferred over another, you're doing philosophy. If you debate interpretations, or completeness... etc.

Here's a sample list of some philosophy of physics. Note the authors.

Werner Heisenberg: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1573926949/?tag=pfamazon01-20
Werner Heisenberg: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0918024153/?tag=pfamazon01-20
Niels Bohr: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0918024501/?tag=pfamazon01-20
David Bohm: https://www.amazon.com/dp/041512185X/?tag=pfamazon01-20
David Bohm: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0415289793/?tag=pfamazon01-20
Erwin Schrodinger: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0521427088/?tag=pfamazon01-20

For some modern philosophy of physics, see http://www.princeton.edu/~hhalvors/, especially the "papers" tab. Take a look at some of the journals that Hans Halvorson, a philosopher, publishes in... Journal of Mathematical Physics, Foundations of Physics, Physical Review A, International Journal of Theoretical Physics, etc.

As for the original question... don't choose between philosophy and physics. Do both. Being a good philosopher requires an understanding of physics. Here's a sample of philosophy of physics programs / departments / majors:

http://users.ox.ac.uk/~ppox/
http://yalecollege.yale.edu/content/physics-and-philosophy
http://www.brown.edu/Administration/Registrar/Concentrations-70b.htm
http://www.columbia.edu/cu/philosophy/grad/main/phph/index.html
http://physics.bu.edu/undergrad/degree_programs#philo
 
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  • #9
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Why can't you double major in both?

BTW, that philosophy professor of yours who told you not to waste your life on "numbers" is clearly clueless on what physics is. I could ask you to tell her what Feynman said about philosophy, but I won't.

Zz.
Are you talking about the QED steak?
 
  • #10
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As soon as you stop calculating and experimenting and start asking what the formulas of physics actually represent in the world, you're doing philosophy. If you ask why one mathematical formulation should be preferred over another, you're doing philosophy. If you debate interpretations, or completeness... etc.

Here's a sample list of some philosophy of physics. Note the authors.

Werner Heisenberg: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1573926949/?tag=pfamazon01-20
Werner Heisenberg: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0918024153/?tag=pfamazon01-20
Niels Bohr: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0918024501/?tag=pfamazon01-20
David Bohm: https://www.amazon.com/dp/041512185X/?tag=pfamazon01-20
David Bohm: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0415289793/?tag=pfamazon01-20
Erwin Schrodinger: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0521427088/?tag=pfamazon01-20

For some modern philosophy of physics, see http://www.princeton.edu/~hhalvors/, especially the "papers" tab. Take a look at some of the journals that Hans Halvorson, a philosopher, publishes in... Journal of Mathematical Physics, Foundations of Physics, Physical Review A, International Journal of Theoretical Physics, etc.
]
I don't agree with you here. What do you think theoretical/mathematical physicists do? They are the ones looking at the math, trying to understand it, and drawing conclusions. Its still doing physics in my opinion, and even if you don't agree, its still being done by physicists or mathematicians for the most part. Just the other day one of my professors said "A physicist cant just take the formula for granted, he must look at it and try to deeply understand what the formula is saying. Sure a philosopher can try all he wants, but unless hes ALSO a physicist or mathematician, do you really think he would understand a new equation in quantum field theory?

The point I was trying to make to the OP was that you just aren't going to be coming up with any critical breakthroughs in the world being just a philosopher. Even you are majoring in ME, so therefore you must have a general idea of whats really going on. And you posting a list of philosophical books that were all published BY physicists, if anything, supports what I was saying.

I never said there was anything wrong with philosophy or majoring in it also. I even suggested a double major, because I do find philosophy interesting.
 
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  • #11
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Your post seems to be saying that physicists also do philosophy. I agree. Philosophy is a necessary component of physics. And as I said, being a good philosopher requires knowledge of physics.
 
  • #12
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I guess I'll add that there's no such thing as "pure" philosophy. There's value theory / ethics, philosophy of science, philosophy of math, logic, metaphysics, epistemology, etc. Sure, someone doing ethics may not have a lot to say that is relevant to physicists. A physicist reading metaphysics would most likely consider it to be a load of BS - metaphysics is not physics and vice versa. It's impossible for a philosopher to say anything about physics though, without understanding the physics sufficiently. And everyone understands this.

The following is straight from the list of requirements for the general philosophy major at my school:
A student of philosophy should have a broad understanding of modern science. Any good science course (including the behavioral sciences) is suitable, but courses in the natural sciences and mathematics should be given first consideration.
There's good philosophy and there's bad philosophy, just like there's good physics and bad physics. The difference is that more people can tell when someone claims to have discovered perpetual motion that they've screwed up the physics. Not nearly as many physicists are trained enough in philosophy to pick out the difference between an undergrad spouting gibberish and someone who actually knows what they are talking about. That's unfortunate considering how inseparable physics and philosophy actually are.
 
  • #13
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Physics used to be term natural philosophy.
 
  • #14
ZapperZ
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Physics used to be term natural philosophy.
But that name means nothing now, nor has any bearing on what physics IS right now. Evidence: a formal course in philosophy is often NOT required as part of a physics degree.

If we're stuck in the past and put weight in a name, one might also want to consider the origin of the word "physics". Does that mean that since physics came from "http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/201101284" [Broken]", physicists should care about dispensing medical advice?

Zz.
 
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  • #15
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I appreciate the insightful replies!

Considering the perspectives and information provided, I think I would continue on in my Honours Astrophysics program and complete a Minor in Philosophy. After which I would attempt to attend a MA/MSC, "Philosophy of Physics", "Foundations for Physics", or the like, graduate program before heading on to a PhD in either: Astrophysics, Theoretical Physics, or Experimental Physics (who knows).

I found kote's post quite intriguing, seeing as there are so many "famous" scientists who actually did write on Philosophy. Note, I am more interested in the History and Philosophy of Math, Epistemology (!), Metaphysics, Philosophy of Science, aspects of Philosophy. While ethics and hermeneutics are interesting, I wouldn't want to spend all my time thinking about it.

Hopefully, given that I see to have been gifted with a decent intellect and a drive to work hard and achieve something useful with my life, I can put my "philosophical mind" to use in the physical world and contribute somehow to the field of physics.

Thank you so much everybody for the replies!
 
  • #16
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But that name means nothing now, nor has any bearing on what physics IS right now. Evidence: a formal course in philosophy is often NOT required as part of a physics degree.

If we're stuck in the past and put weight in a name, one might also want to consider the origin of the word "physics". Does that mean that since physics came from "http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/201101284" [Broken]", physicists should care about dispensing medical advice?

Zz.
I was just giving a factoid, chief. The original term does describe exactly what physics is. Philosophy is, simply put, a perspective on how something works, what governs it, etc. The term natural philosophy to me implies the investigation into how the natural world operates and so forth.
 
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  • #17
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Evidence: a formal course in philosophy is often NOT required as part of a physics degree.
Similarly, a formal course in physics is often not a prerequisite for philosophy of science courses...

http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#Traditional Wisdom
Traditional Wisdom

If you say or imply that a practice must be OK today simply because it has been the apparently wise practice in the past, you commit the fallacy of traditional wisdom. Procedures that are being practiced and that have a tradition of being practiced might or might not be able to be given a good justification, but merely saying that they have been practiced in the past is not always good enough, in which case the fallacy is committed.
 
  • #18
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I appreciate the insightful replies!

Considering the perspectives and information provided, I think I would continue on in my Honours Astrophysics program and complete a Minor in Philosophy. After which I would attempt to attend a MA/MSC, "Philosophy of Physics", "Foundations for Physics", or the like, graduate program before heading on to a PhD in either: Astrophysics, Theoretical Physics, or Experimental Physics (who knows).

I found kote's post quite intriguing, seeing as there are so many "famous" scientists who actually did write on Philosophy. Note, I am more interested in the History and Philosophy of Math, Epistemology (!), Metaphysics, Philosophy of Science, aspects of Philosophy. While ethics and hermeneutics are interesting, I wouldn't want to spend all my time thinking about it.

Hopefully, given that I see to have been gifted with a decent intellect and a drive to work hard and achieve something useful with my life, I can put my "philosophical mind" to use in the physical world and contribute somehow to the field of physics.

Thank you so much everybody for the replies!

Very wise choice you have made. Good luck with your studies!
 
  • #19
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I don't know why, but I feel like I'm wasting my time if I am not thinking about the real fundamentals of everything.
It seems that this is at the heart of your worries. I have plenty to say on this particular matter, but in short, you must ask yourself the following: does majoring in something really get you closer to understanding it, or are there better ways. That is, if you want to understand the deep subtleties of life, does majoring in a subject related to that stuff get at it best? Maybe for some people.

But what you really need is something which will get you thinking about things aggressively, confidently, perceptively, and curiously. Somehow, insights are just the less impressive after-effect -- it's the prodigious energy and creativity that allows one to think about ideas in different ways that actually generates insight, and brings one to any greater understanding. In a sense, everything is happening in your mind, and the mind has to be fresh.

Subjects like physics and mathematics do not directly tap into questions like 'what is aesthetics', yet doing mathematics certainly forces you to grapple with what aesthetics is to you - that will (even if not completely) significantly influence many individuals' choices on what to do and study. Physics - studying it makes you realize how the gross 'realities' and physical world we study are approached using various models, i.e. strange equations, new definitions, etc. They have intrinsic beauty to them, because we do like understanding things and looking at them in different ways, and of course we are in awe of the way the universe works. The process of understanding how we understand such things is itself something which a philosophical mind would perhaps appreciate.

Then, you can of course take philosophy classes. Or, of course, you could choose to be a philosophy major.

But I always encourage that when people claim to be into things like philosophy, psychology - these are all deep things that you don't get just by majoring in them. You can arrive at deep realizations through very different paths, and without understanding lots of things, in fact your understanding will (in my own opinion) be shallow.

Now the problem with majoring in physics is if you don't care about grinding through hard problems, equations, etc, well you'll get frustrated - because that's simply not part of how your mind works. But apparently you have no trouble naturally thinking about physics, so that's something to consider.

I would agree with your teacher that it may be a waste if you never indulge in some philosophy literature again, if it's something that is meaningful to you, but please do not be under the impression that majoring in philosophy teaches you philosophy better -- it is one great way of grappling with deep things to read the writings of others who have philosophized, but a lot of what you gain will be naturally through living your life.
 
  • #20
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Very wise choice you have made. Good luck with your studies!
Hah, I didn't realize the choice had been made already, but hopefully some of what I said is affirming.

To the one who began this thread - I like your plan, I think that's the way to go from the way your first post sounded.
 
  • #21
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I feel that I'm also qualified to comment here as a double major in mechanical engineering and philosophy. My philosophy major included required courses on formal logic through Godel and modern logic. My honors thesis was written on quantum mechanics and was co-read by the physics department.

What's written above about philosophy just isn't true. Philosophy is very rigorous and analytical - it's about rational argument and proof. Philosophy studies what the physics actually means. It studies the limits and assumptions of physics.
Your post is interesting, although I think your experience with philosophy might be unique. Honestly, I think there are plenty of people who major in physics with little understanding of philosophy, and plenty of philosophy majors with little understanding of science.

I agree with you on the importance of understanding both. I do think, however, that people who do physics and mathematics for a living, not just majors, are probably forced to be philosophical and really question what stuff means, how we can understanding, our limits, etc.
 
  • #22
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I was just giving a factoid, chief. The original term does describe exactly what physics is. Philosophy is, simply put, a perspective on how something works, what governs it, etc. The term natural philosophy to me implies the investigation into how the natural world operates and so forth.
I don't see the relevance to this discussion.
 
  • #23
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Philosophy is not a set of beliefs...it is a methodology.

1) In Analytic philosophy dept....which is the most unis in USA/England - philosophers who do philosophy of science...almost all studied physics or math. In my undergrad. education in philosophy out of ~10 profs. 5 had degrees in math./physics.

2) Philosophy applies logic etc. to discuss questions...so without learning how to do that you cannot just randomly become a "philosopher" as someone said....that is the point of getting a degree. Just like math teaches you how to think in terms of proofs/axioms....same with philosophy...and most arguments you will be analyzing axioms/proofs...but on far broader scope than math.

3) Math/Physics are limited - philosophy is not. Physics relies on Math and Empiricism....and it does not even question it, Math - you don't question the axioms or logic - you take that for granted. In philosophy you can question even empiricism, logic, sets of basic beliefs.

4) Also in philosophy you can explore further than math/physics....all respectful philosophers in analytic dept. who actually know what they are talking have the out-most respect for the sciences and math....and in philosophy of physics most people have MS in Physics and in philosophy of math - MS/MA in Math.

5)So to answer your question on where to go:

The choice will depend on how far you want to question things and how far you want to get "practical" results. If you want to see good approximations on how world works...you go to physics - but with the limitation that you won't be allowed to question empiricism and most of math./logic.

If you are bothered by the notions of truth, knowledge and why are we even allowed to use empirical results for basis of some of our knowledge...you go to philosophy.
 
  • #24
epenguin
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I appreciate the insightful replies!

Considering the perspectives and information provided, I think I would continue on in my Honours Astrophysics program and complete a Minor in Philosophy. After which I would attempt to attend a MA/MSC, "Philosophy of Physics", "Foundations for Physics", or the like, graduate program before heading on to a PhD in either: Astrophysics, Theoretical Physics, or Experimental Physics (who knows).

I found kote's post quite intriguing, seeing as there are so many "famous" scientists who actually did write on Philosophy. Note, I am more interested in the History and Philosophy of Math, Epistemology (!), Metaphysics, Philosophy of Science, aspects of Philosophy. While ethics and hermeneutics are interesting, I wouldn't want to spend all my time thinking about it.

Hopefully, given that I see to have been gifted with a decent intellect and a drive to work hard and achieve something useful with my life, I can put my "philosophical mind" to use in the physical world and contribute somehow to the field of physics.

Thank you so much everybody for the replies!
Did you have to decide your career choice by Monday morning? :biggrin:
If not I would like to offer some additional considerations - more in philosophy direction - but have to log off right now.
 
  • #25
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By now means have I 100% chosen what I wish to do, I've only done my first semester of university. It could turn that I for some reason end up absolutely hating one of these disciplines although that would be unlikely at this point.

Please any more suggestions or comments are always welcomed! Even if it is not necessarily directed towards me, I love reading conversation about the two subjects and just learning more about how they actually are.
 

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