Nature Podcast

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Kerri Smith: This week old sand deposits in Thailand and Indonesia suggest that the 2004 tsunami was not the first of its kind.

Brian F. Atwater : The only place that the sand could have come from is the sea.

Adam Rutherford: And frogs in peril - and the culprit is an agrochemical.

Jason Rohr: It is very possible that atrazine could be contributing to worldwide amphibian decline.

Adam Rutherford: This is the Nature Podcast, I am Adam Rutherford.

Kerri Smith: And I'm Kerri Smith.

Kerri Smith: First this week, the huge tsunami that devastated countries around the Indian Ocean in 2004 may not be as unique as geologists thought. That's the conclusion of two papers in Nature this week. Geoff Brumfiel has the story. Nature 455, 1228-1231 (30 October 2008) 10.1038/nature07374; 10.1038/nature07373

Geoff Brumfiel: The day after Christmas 2004, a fault deep beneath the Indian Ocean shook sending a massive wall of water towards the Indonesian island of Sumatra.(Audio clip of tsunami in background)

Geoff Brumfiel: The tsunami reverberated as far away as India and even Madagascar. All told 220,000 people in 11 countries lost their lives.

Brian F. Atwater : Tsunamis infamously ignore international boundaries and so it is that tsunami science needs to ignore international boundaries.

Geoff Brumfiel: Brian Atwater is with the US Geological Survey. He and other geologists know that tsunami is come from subduction zones, places where one of the earth's giant tectonic plates dives gently under the other.

Brian F. Atwater : One tectonic plate diving at a gentle angle under another, but the plates stuck together where the overriding plate has its leading edge, so that the overriding plate stuck gets bulged up in between times and then during the earth quake (sound of explosion) kicks the sea floor and that helps to drive the tsunami, it's warps the sea floor.

Geoff Brumfiel: But the 2004 tsunami raised another important question, just how often do these faults release their penned up stress. Written histories in Indonesia go back to the 1600s without mentioning a cataclysm of this sort seen in 2004. But scientists wanted geological evidence as well. That's not easy. Tsunamis are short lived events and their impact can only be seen in sedimentary layers which are susceptible to erosion and contamination. Two teams have been hunting for sandy layers characteristic of tsunamis on small islands off the coast of Sumatra and Thailand. They looked through grassy beach ridges and swales, low lying marshy areas some distance from the ocean. It was a long and difficult search according to Maria Martin of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Maria E. Martin: We go out to these beach-ridge swales, these low water areas and we dig holes and see what we have found and we didn't find anything and so we moved to the next area and dig holes again and try again and try again and finally we went to a place with a large wet swale and when we dug there, we found that 2004 deposit well preserved and a layer below it and as we worked towards the wettest part of this swale we found more and more layers and we ended up finding at least 3 other layers besides 2004 in this area.

Geoff Brumfiel: The island had no rivers, so the ocean had to be the source, again Brian Atwater.

Brian F. Atwater : How do we know that the sand came from the sea, okay at Phra Thong Island? How do we it's not a river flood? Well the island is a beach ridge plane. There are no rivers. There is no way that a river from the upland can even get there and so just by context the only place that the sand could have come from is the sea unless it was blown there by wind, but the island is delicately striped by the burns of former beaches, here dozens and dozens of these beautifully preserved. They haven't been overprinted by the landforms of windblown sand.

Geoff Brumfiel: The team used radiocarbon isotopes to date organic material in the sediments. They found that the last 2004 size tsunami occurred between 550 and 700 years ago. The second team found evidence of another earlier tsunami around 1100 years in the past. The researchers hope that this more detailed historical record will help guide future emergency preparations and coastal development. For the Nature Podcast, I am Geoff Brumfiel.

Adam Rutherford: And there is a video of that study available on Coming up later in the show, what economics can learn from physics, but first we are revisiting our most popular story of the year so far, the rediscovery of the world's oldest computer. In July we published a paper and a film, in which a team of scientists and historians performed 21st Century analysis on the Antikythera mechanism, an amazingly complex cogged machine from ancient Greece. Journalist and former Nature News Editor Jo Marchant has written 'The Definitive Book' on the Antikythera mechanism and is here with us in the pod. Hi Jo!

Jo Marchant: Hello.

Adam Rutherford: Okay let's start from the beginning. Let's start with Greek sponge divers.

Jo Marchant: Autumn 1900 a crew of Greek sponge divers were sailing home in their tiny boat from the summer diving grounds off the coast of North Africa, trying to get home to their island of Simi which is in the east of Mediterranean blown off coast by a storm and they took shelter by a tiny little barren rocky island called Antikythera which is halfway between southern tip of mainland Greece and Crete in South. It took a few days for the storm to abate. One of them dives down presumably looking for sponges the next morning and comes up gabbling like terrified, talking about heaps of dead naked women that he has seen on the seabed. The captain, he is called Demetrios Kondos said what's going on here, takes off the suit, puts on himself and you have one suit for each crew, goes down and realizes that they are actually statues, ancient Greek statues, the first ancient Greek wreck ever discovered and they were subsequently hired by the government to salvage it.

Adam Rutherford: And as they pulled out statues and other treasures, they also came across, what was it? I mean, it wasn't known to be mechanism at this point.

Jo Marchant: No it just looked like a lump of rock at first. It was dumped in a crate sort of in a court yard for months and nobody really paid much attention. What they did back in the museum because all of these treasures are coming back, everything marble and bronze statues of men, women, and horses, jewellery, helmets, throne, all sorts of things, but they had the pieces in a crate that they were just, lots of the statutes are broken up, so everybody said let's go through the pieces, looking for bits, and trying to put them back together and this lump cracked open basically. It's not like someone hitting with the hammer, it just cracked open as it dried and inside the traces of gear wheels and inscriptions and scales and pointers and nobody knew what to make of it.

Adam Rutherford: So at what point did scientists or did the curators of the museums begin to understand the significance of what they were looking at.

Jo Marchant: Well it was shown to the Director of the museum. He immediately realized this was something incredible. They've never seen anything like it. Experts were called from all over Greece and from rest of Europe they were all looking at it and what's the making of it, they are kind of all exchanging articles in the popular press and kind of arguing over what it was. The only thing they can really tell was some of the inscriptions seemed to be astronomical in nature. So one of the theories was that it was an astrolabe and other people thought it might be planetarium, but really they did not know.

Adam Rutherford: What's an astrolabe?

Jo Marchant: It's basically a metal disk it was popularly thought to be invented by the ancient Greeks. It was used basically for calculating the time of the day from the stars and from the sun and from making observations. One disc sliding over another, basically representing the positions of things in sky; but it is just two discs and a pointer and it does not need any gearwheels, it didn't really make any sense that it will be an astrolabe, so really they didn't know and kind of after decades of arguing it was, kind of, forgotten about, it was, kind of, inconvenient; it didn't fit in with historian's ideas of what the Greeks have been able to do and they really couldn't answer anything about it. So, for decades it kind of fell in to obscurity.

Adam Rutherford: And so that takes us to the middle in the late 20th Century and at what point does the story pick up again when we begin to understand what it actually is?

Jo Marchant: Well, there was guy called Derek De Solla Price, he was born in London, a physicist then became a science historian studying at Yale and he was fascinated by the history of science and in particular the history of scientific instruments. Because he thought that was absolutely key to the advancement of knowledge. If you haven't got the instruments to take the measurements there is no science basically and he became interested in this thing. He basically has seen a couple of accounts of it; realized it was something special and went to Athens and studied it and decided that he thought it was what he called the calendar computer. It was calculating the motions of the sun and the moon through the sky. And eventually, he was able to x-ray the fragments and kind of came up with the reconstruction and published this big paper on it and that was really, he was the person that, kind of, understood the essence of what this thing was but he kind of he fiddled a lot for figures. His reconstruction had a lot of problems with it. His paper was, kind of, tortuously long and no kind of standard. So didn't really have that much of an effect and there was a few kind of enthusiasts in the field who noticed it but otherwise, nobody really paid that much attention.

Adam Rutherford: It's quite an unusual story for Nature to publish in the first place and that it is sort of combination between astronomy, astrology and archaeology, so when you talk about the field what is the field, who are the people looking at this amazing thing?

Jo Marchant: Well that's really interesting because it crosses so many boundaries; I think may be that's part of the reason that hasn't been well studied over the years, so there isn't somebody whose field this is. You have got this sort of the classist and the ancient historians, but they don't really have the scientific and technical knowledge and they are not really interested in scientific instruments; they are studying the beautiful statues and the amazing, sort of, poetry and philosophy. So they kind of ignored this stuff, but then you have got the historians of science they are not going to get back that far and so the engineers and mechanics who understand the details what the thing might do, don't know the history, they don't know because it was Greek, so it has been difficult to have kind of, one person who brings all of that together to work out what this thing was.

Adam Rutherford: So, bring us up to speed the most recent study was published in Nature just a few months ago. What did that tell us?

Jo Marchant: But what we knew before that study came out was that this was a box about the size of a clock you might have on your mantelpiece, wooden case, dials on the front and back, you turn a handle on the side and it basically tells you everything about the sky that you need to know at that moment. There is a pointer showing you the positions of the sun and the moon and the planets in the zodiac, inscriptions telling you what the stars are doing, a calendar on the back and an eclipse prediction dial. It's not just showing constant speeds of these things, they are actually the way that the gears work, models the epicyclic theory of the Greeks. So actually these pointers are moving forwards and backwards, they are varying in speed, exactly modelling the astronomical theories that the Greeks had at that time. What this latest paper did was, historians were trying to decipher the inscriptions and then particularly they were looking at the month names on the calendar on the dial and found that these were local month names, only used by particular calendars and the most likely origin of those calendars is Syracuse in Sicily and that's really interesting because that is where Archimedes came from and we have text saying that Archimedes supposedly made a bronze machine that modelled the movements of the sun, moon and planets through the sky. And it was never taken that seriously because the people who read about it and explained how it worked, may be they made it up, you know it is not really proof of anything and but here we have exactly that kind of machine and we think it may have come from Syracuse.

Adam Rutherford: Okay Jo nice to see you again. Decoding the heavens, solving the Mysteries of the World's First Computer by Jo Marchant is out on November 6th in the UK and it is available from Amazon and all good book shops.

Kerri Smith: There is a full length version of that interview as a Podcast Extra, if you are a subscriber it's already nestling in your I-tunes and there's an ace video about the Antikythera mechanism at

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Kerri Smith: Now, 2008 is international year of the frog, who knew. Here's Natasha Gilbert with a ribbiting report on the threats faced by our froggy friends.

Natasha Gilbert: Half of whole amphibian species are in decline making them the most threatened vertebrate animals on the planet. One of the key reasons for their decline is disease, but why do they succumb so easily. A study by Jason Rohr from the University of South Florida and his team investigated what might be causing the Nova Leopard frog which is native to parts of Canada and the US to become infected with parasitic worms which leads to liver damage and limb abnormalities. The culprit, the commonly used herbicide atrazine. Nature 455, 1235-1239 (30 October 2008) 10.1038/nature07281

Jason R. Rohr: What we discovered was that the best predictor of larval trematode abundance in amphibians was the concentration of the herbicide atrazine in the water.

Natasha Gilbert: From field and lab studies, Rohr's' team found that atrazine not only suppressed the frog's immune system, making them more susceptible to disease but also increased the number of snails in the surrounding area. The flat worms hitch-a-ride on the snails to the frogs, so more snails mean is more likely the frogs would be infected. Rohr explains.

Jason R. Rohr: It seems to be providing a double whammy to the frogs and what I mean by that is that it seems to be increasing both exposure and susceptibility. The frog seemed to be exposed to more snails and thus likely more trematodes and they also seem to have a greater susceptibility because the chemical seems to be immunosuppressive in frogs.

Natasha Gilbert: What's more the damage that flat worms cause the frogs could be so severe that it is contributing to the massive fall in its population currently underway. Rohr is just beginning a follow-up study to look at this. But if atrazine is indeed suppressing amphibian's immune system, it is possible that the herbicide could be increasing their susceptibility to a wide range of infections, not just flat worms.

Jason R. Rohr: It is likely that if atrazine does increase larval trematode infections by both increasing exposure and susceptibility and if it is indeed an immunosuppressor as numerous researchers have shown then it is very possible that it could be increasing the risk of a wide range of infections outside of strictly trematodes and if infections are indeed more likely then it is very possible that atrazine could be contributing to what's like amphibian decline.

Natasha Gilbert: Rohr says that he would like to see atrazine replaced with other less harmful herbicides in an effort to reduce amphibian decline. But given that it is the second most commonly used herbicide in the US and likely in the world this may be a tall order. He set out some possible alternatives.

Jason R. Rohr: It's very possible that we could identify a substitute herbicide that might be less likely to increase disease risk for amphibians; so that is certainly a possibility. An alternative that I would advocate more than that would be just simply reduce our dependence on agrochemicals. I think that would certainly help and there also the possibility of creating some buffers around fields that might reduce the probability of these chemicals entering our water systems.

Natasha Gilbert: The Northern Leopard Frog is not the only species threatened by infection and pollution. To get the bigger picture, I went to London zoo to meet Trent Garner, an expert on amphibian infectious diseases with the Institute Of Zoology, part of the Zoological Society of London. The zoo is undertaking captive breeding programs with several species including the bicolour poison arrow frog, that's making itself known in the background. During the visit to the amphibian breeding room, Garner told me just how about the situation of facing amphibians is and explained some of the benefits and problems with captive breeding amphibians.

Trent Garner: As you can hear in the background it's reasonably easy to keep amphibians in tanks, having said that there's still a lot of work to be done to develop the capacity in zoos to do that, those lack of trained professionals who are specially trained for amphibian husbandry, that's important and we need their capacity in zoos and as well as you can see in this room the facilities for keeping this amphibians are not straight forward. The space issues as compared to mammals are pretty straight forward but they require certain conditions to be healthy to vocalize and then in fact breed in captivity.

Natasha Gilbert: Garner says one of the biggest problems conservation efforts face is that threat from diseases because unless the infections can be neutralized, populations that are re-introduced into the world through breeding programs will succumb. This is where rules work good help because it takes a step at looking at how infections spread in the wild.

Trent Garner: Well the Rohr et al., paper is a really fine example of how to combine experimental work and field work and use modelling to show exactly what the dynamics are of an infectious disease or a parasite in an amphibian and how this can be influencing synergistically by other factors. Rohr et al., did a fine job showing the link between the presence of atrazine, the presence of a food source for snails, how this affected snail populations and the correlation between snail populations and the presence of a parasite that causes and has deleterious effects on the amphibians that it infects.

Natasha Gilbert: But Garner says a lot more research into infectious diseases including long range population studies in the wild is needed and conservation efforts still have a long way to go.

Adam Rutherford: Natasha Gilbert talking to Jason Rohr and Trent Garner. Now it's not always easy to predict how populations of animals will respond to threats, something that's also true of our next story Kerri.

Kerri Smith: That's right, a commentary in the journal this week takes aim at economists for not thinking enough like physicists. Economists of course tried to predict how populations of humans working in financial markets respond to various influences, but the argument is they don't do it on the basis of testable theory. The author is Jean-Philippe Bouchaud Head of Research at Paris based Hedge fund Capital Fund Management and a physicist by training. I spoke to him and started by asking what the main difference is between economics and physics are. Nature 455, 1181 (30 October 2008) 10.1038/1181a

Jean-Philippe Bouchaud: Well, to me the real difference is the role of concepts and empirical data. Economics has been built on very strong axiom and the reason for that is that for many years actually there has not been so many data to play with in economics whereas physics is always being very adamant to keep strong links between experiments and theory and if the theory is beautiful but at odds with empirical data then it has to be abandoned. This culture of comparing systematically theory with experiment, theory with data is something that economics has to learn and to do in a more systematic way.

Kerri Smith: And I suppose your argument would be that the current credit crunch is sort of symptomatic of this.

Jean-Philippe Bouchaud: Yes, I mean that the reality is much more complex and there are many reasons for the crunch right now, but I think one of the hidden reasons that I think is important in the end is the way that concepts and axioms pervade the mind of people in charge of many different things actually. I mean, I am really surprised by the recent statement by Alan Greenspan who said that he is distressed to see that the face he had in self-regulating markets has failed.

Kerri Smith: So, why is that the physicists haven't recognized this problem before and should have stepped in and wanted to do anything about it, you know, transfer their methods to those working in economics.

Jean-Philippe Bouchaud: Well, I think this is coming actually slowly in the last 20 years or so. Quite a lot of physicists have actually moved to financial engineering but I think that they have moved in a sense too fast at an individual level and this means that they had to adapt quickly to new environments and had to sallow and digest as quickly as possible the methods and the law that they were asked to absorb and I don't think they have had the liberty and the time to step back and think what am I really doing here? So this has to be done in a less competitive environment i.e. in Universities and here there is a true trend and then lots of people in physics trying to take a view at economics and financial markets with the methods of physics, but I think it is too soon for this to have a real impact on mainstream economics. May be the present crisis is a good reason to think that economics needs a scientific revolution.

Kerri Smith: Is it too strong to say that some aspects of financial economics will just be subsumed under physics.

Jean-Philippe Bouchaud: I think in general it is good to have a multidisciplinary approach to complex problems and economics is clearly one of the most complex problems that humanity had solved and so I don't think that economics would be subsumed in physics, I think there's a new branch of science emerging from economics, finance and physics will appear and people will share their methods and their ideas. I don't think it's necessarily good thing to absorb economics in physics at all. I think it's better to have different views and may be we actually need other views as well beyond physics to understand the complexity of human constructions.

Kerri Smith: So one final question then, are there any measures that you would like to see put in place starting now?

Jean-Philippe Bouchaud: No, I think it's really a long term process. I think that the urgent thing everybody agrees on that and may be that's a place where different communities and different backgrounds are usefully mingled together and this would be institutions to oversee financial invasions a little bit like we have agencies for food and drugs and agencies for other types of risks. I think this would be a very good idea to have independence academically rooted agencies to oversee these complex financial products and trying to understand unintended effects of any regulation or any decision that's made to change are to improve the behaviour of these system.

Kerri Smith: Jean-Philippe Bouchaud. His commentary is in this week's Nature available as always at

Adam Rutherford: Almost done for another week but first we are joined by Online News Editor Mark Peplow who is going to distil for us the best of Nature's news site, like some kind of news purification kit, Hi Mark.

Mark Peplow: Hello Adam.

Adam Rutherford: Now there is a controversy brewing over monkey research in Germany. doi:10.1038/4551159a

Mark Peplow: Yeah, that's right. A researcher called Andreas Kreiter who works at the University of Bremen, he normally works using macaques to study cognitive processes in the mammalian brain. Basically, he looks at single neurons and what they are actually doing when the monkeys are doing particular tasks and this is being controversial research in the area for quite a number of years. Germany's largest animal protection group has been campaigning for a long time to have these experiments closed down, but they have always passed ethical approval and they have always been allowed to go ahead because they are researching really something quite fundamental to understand how mammalian brains work, but now Bremen's parliament has actually shut his research down and Kreiter was informed on the 15th of October by the local authority in charge of approving animal experiments that his license to do these experiments isn't being renewed. Basically, their argument is that society's values have actually changed so that what was once considered ethical is now no longer ethically justified, basically because it is not aimed at developing specific medical therapies.

Adam Rutherford: And does he have any recourse to object to this ruling?

Mark Peplow: Well, he does but he is basically at the moment in Germany being through a certain amount of lobbying basically to higher powers, both him and a variety of other scientists involved in primate work, are up arms about this. One that our reporter spoke to Stefan Treue who is the director of the German Primate Center in Göttingen and states that it is a flagrant case of political interference with approval procedures.

Adam Rutherford: And how does this sort of controversy compare with other European countries and also macaque research that goes on in the rest of the world.

Mark Peplow: Well, certainly across Europe, there has been over the last decade a growing move to try and limit primate research as much as possible. I think ultimately a lot of authorities in countries around Europe are finding that public opinion is switching one way or another on this and it tends to be a case that certainly in Beremen's case there was a great deal of public campaigning which tended to push public opinion against this sort of research and politicians have responded to that.

Kerri Smith: So, one researcher there whose productivity is going to be slashed by that new legislation, but another group of researchers looked into another new story seemed to be upping their productivity. doi:10.1038/4551161a

Mark Peplow: Yeah, this is an interesting survey actually. The most productive scientists at least in terms of their publications tend to be those in their 50s and 60s. That's the conclusion of a survey of nearly 14,000 professors, theses are active professors looking at their publication record done by a group of the University of Quebec in Montreal in Canada. Basically they found professors in the 50s and 60s published almost twice as many papers each year as those in their early 30s and those papers are just as highly cited. So basically the researchers go through the Thomson Reuters citation index to look for these papers to do this statistical analysis on this and they found that as it would expect through your late 20s and early 30s, your productivity rises sharply and they start to tale off but it does keep rising and again by the time you are in your 50s and 60s the impact factor of your papers is really still quite significant.

Kerri Smith: Now this leads me to may be naïvely ask, is this just because the more senior scientists are more likely to be principal investigators, they can put their name on the more genius scientists work?

Mark Peplow: Yeah, this is one of the questions that came up and there is a question of how of many of these articles are review articles which do tend to be very highly cited and it is quite possible that as one gets a lower teaching load as you reach your 50s and 60s, it is not impossible for finding more time to do these sorts of review articles which are very highly cited. There is of course a question as well on what effects students have on their older co-authors output. Obviously, the leader of the lab will have their name on pretty much every paper that comes out of that lab. Nevertheless when we talked to a science policy expert Anthony van Raan in Leiden University in the Netherlands, he said, you know, this could make a compelling case against this sort of mandatory retirement that you see across most European countries, because it has proved positive that all the researchers are really still very productive.

Adam Rutherford: Okay and finally the US presidential election is in the final furlong this week, but Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, she may have lost the science vote, right?

Mark Peplow: Yeah, that's right. I think that she may have lost it a long time before now Adam but the first major policy space last Friday, I think certainly among scientists she did herself a lot of damage and she was sort of attacking pet projects, if you like. These sorts of projects which get earmarked money for doing research perhaps which is of no great value and in particular she was mocking fruit fly research in Paris, France.

Adam Rutherford: Okay, let's have a listen to what she said.

Sarah Palin: Where do the lot of that earmarked money end up anyway? Sometimes these dollars they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.

Adam Rutherford: That's a pretty ignorant statement to make. Do we know any background to what she is actually talking about?

Mark Peplow: This was all over the blogger first as soon as she said this. People dissecting what she was actually talking about and a lot of people at first looked and just thought she was talking about Drosophila research and Drosophila is used in such a vast array of research. Not least to research to try and identify the molecular basis of disorders like autism something which she said she is actually committed to pour in money into this, sort of, research and but in fact it is probably more likely some of the more informed bloggers recognized more likely that is referring specifically to research done on the olive fruit fly. Mike Thompson who is a democratic congressman in California's Nappa valley pour a substantial amount of money into basically working up ways to tackle the olive fruit fly which was threatening, what has become quite significant industry in California, there are olive oil industries worth about 85 million dollars. Basically this money has gone to France because that sort of research is far more established out there. Consequently, this is sort of the direct application that you think would very easily justify this research.

Adam Rutherford: Well it does sound like for the public good. Now have we had any official response from Sarah Palin's representatives?

Mark Peplow: Well, not yet, at least not at the time of recording of this podcast. I think the thing is this shouldn't be a case of, oh! Look at Sarah Palin, look out how stupid she is and the point is she didn't write that speech, someone on the Republican Advisory Group wrote that speech and it probably speaks possibly to a deeper disregard for science that is present within the Republican Campaign.

Adam Rutherford: And what about fruit fly researchers, how have they responded?

Mark Peplow: Well you know, people involved in fruit fly research, actually the research that I mentioned directly connected with the molecular basis for autism have already come out just pointing out the, sort of, research they do and so fruit fly workers revealed a huge amount about basic genetics over the last century. And in fact it's heartening to see the scientific community that have come out so strongly just to point out these things and if you like to defence they use of the fruit fly in basic research.

Adam Rutherford: Well by this time next week, we should know if Sarah Palin has the power to stop fruit fly research altogether. Thanks Mark. All of those stories are available from

Kerri Smith: That's all from us in the Nature pod this week. Next time we are coming at you with more genetics than you and possibly we can handle just in time for the meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in Philadelphia. Till then I'm Kerri Smith and I do see the point of fruit fly research in Paris, France.

Adam Rutherford: I'm Adam Rutherford and I approve this message.


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