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The best sources to understand cosmology and physics

Discussion in 'Science and Technology' started by LegionOnomaMoi, Feb 26, 2013.

  1. LegionOnomaMoi

    LegionOnomaMoi Veteran Member
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    I was reading a post (it was actually the opening post of a thread) which contained some questions regarding physics and cosmology and how a beginner might approach learning about these. However, as the post was in a DIR forum and as people in general and on this forum specifically who aren’t very familiar with these topics often express much interest, I thought I would start a thread devoted to this issue: the best material and methods for non-student beginners interested in topics like quantum physics, cosmology, spacetime, and so on.

    Before I give a list of materials I recommend, I’d ask that those who are familiar with the subjects contribute their own. Also, it would be great if those who are not very familiar but who have read books for the non-specialist share their thoughts on these works, particularly those which were too dense and not useful.

    My first recommendation is Susskind. He has put out a series called The Theoretical Minimum, which consists of recorded lectures from actual continuing education courses he taught. They are available for free on YouTube, iTunes, and probably elsewhere. The courses include classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, particle physics, relativity, cosmology, and probably others. The title is due to the purpose of the courses: they are intended to be the “real thing” in that they actually teach the information you would learn in a physics college course, but without some of the fat that isn’t really necessary. And as they are continuing ed. courses the explanations are more thorough and less technical (again without skimping on content). However, as they are real lectures and do get into the nuts and bolts, they may be too thorough for some.

    For those that want something more like an absolute minimum, and are willing to deal with some oversimplification and skimping on content, there are of course tons of books out there. The problem is that it is very difficult to balance simplicity and accuracy. The less comprehensive and technical a book is, the less accurate it is. So I have a few recommendations which I think do this well. Again, I’d very much appreciate the input of others here both in terms of their recommendations and also if they have read anything I recommend what they thought of it.

    A User’s Guide to the Universe: Surviving the Perils of Black Holes, Time Paradoxes, and Quantum Uncertainty.

    This book is a very easy read and covers most of the “hot topics” in physics. Another bonus is that the chapters are relatively self-contained. The book is made to be read straight through, but it is possible (I think) to e.g., skip to the chapter on quantum physics on the big bang without reading previous chapters and still understand what’s going on. For the level of simplicity, I think the authors do a wonderful job at explaining the meat of the topics accurately.

    The Manga Guide to Physics

    The manga guides are a fun series of books I’ve had students acquire covering topics from linear algebra to physics. The Manga Guide to Physics covers the basics of physics that almost nobody likes to learn about but which is rather essential if one wants to know any of the nuts and bolts of the cools stuff, but for those who enjoy comics (or anime, or whatever; I'm not cool enough to know the right terms) it can make the material more interesting.

    The Manga Guide to Relativity

    Same as above, only on relativity.

    The Infinite Cosmos: Questions from the Frontiers of Cosmology

    I was a bit hesitant to recommend this one. Like so many, the author frequently adds his own opinions in areas which are by no means decided in the physics community and frequently with disdain for those who disagree. However, remains one of the most comprehensive sketches of cosmology which is devoid of just about all technical detail. The author has a talent for boiling down what could be an entire book into a chapter.

    The Trouble with Phyiscs: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of Science, and What Comes Next

    This one has the same problem the last one does. In fact, the opinions are on most of the same issues that the previous book are but with an alternate take.
     
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  2. LegionOnomaMoi

    LegionOnomaMoi Veteran Member
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    The next several books are still intended for the non-specialist but are somewhat more dense. On the other hand, they are more comprehensive.


    The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

    Brian Greene’s book seems to cover almost everything and with a surprising amount of detail, yet replaces equations and geometric renderings of mathematical abstractions or spaces with explanations starring Simpson’s characters. At times I think the simplicity is a problem, because it is used to explain something that it really can’t, but for the most part Greene does a good job at conveying pretty complex stuff without the complexity.


    The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos

    Similar to the above (and by the same author), but covering some different topics and perhaps structured somewhat differently.


    General Relativity without Calculus: A Concise Introduction to the Geometry of Relativity

    I include this book mostly it is freely available. Just click on the link.


    The Labyrinth of Time: Introducing the Universe

    This is a great book for a number of reasons. Unlike the book immediately above, it lacks the math that would otherwise make it inaccessible to many readers. It also covers more topics, including quantum physics. In particular (as the title suggests), it represents an exploration of the cosmos and physics by examining in detail and from multiple perspectives something fundamental to cosmology, quantum physics, metaphysics, and philosophy: time. It is quite thorough. However, I have placed it here rather than in the “absolute minimum” section because the detail comes at a price. I don’t think many would find it a quick read.


    Understanding Space-Time: The Philosophical Development of Physics from Newton to Einstein

    An excellent book that covers in some detail not only physics and cosmology, but the historical context and the implications of developments in the field. Although many (including scientists in a lot of fields) find philosophy to be at best an important and marginally relevant discipline when it comes to science, and at worse completely irrelevant apart from the damage done by philosophers who discuss scientific topics when they should leave it to the scientists. Much of physics, especially cosmology, is different. Physics conferences often have speakers who are philosophers. Specialist literature is often written by philosophers. Physicists often write philosophy or at least philosophically oriented material on physics. This book shows why the two seemingly disparate disciplines are often very much connected and does so through a comprehensive discussion of physics itself.


    Quantum Mechanics at the Crossroads: New Perspectives from History, Philosophy, and Physics

    This is volume is part of Springer’s The Frontiers Collection. Neither Springer nor this series produces many titles which are this accessible to the layperson. However, the diversity of the intended audience required all specialists to write at a level of technicality below that they normally would. As a result, this volume is an extremely informative, comprehensive look at cutting-edge issues in modern physics yet lacking most of the elements which normally make such works inaccessible to the non-specialist (in particular, the extensive use of mathematics beyond the high school level). Also, if some papers are contain a bit too much technical detail, these can be skipped entirely. Each chapter is a self-contained contribution by a different author or authors.


    Mind, matter, and quantum mechanics (3rd ed.)

    Like the last one, this Stapp’s book is part of the series The Frontiers Collection. Also like the last book, it is aimed at a diverse audience. So much of it is pretty straightforward and requires no background in physics or knowledge of math. There are more technical sections, but the book is still very informative if these are skipped entirely. This book is also not on quantum mechanics or physics for the sake of these topics, but is rather one proposed solution to a central issue in modern physics which I’ll summarize here as “we have a very detailed and successful framework we call quantum physics, but could someone please tell us what it means?” (the measurement problem). Stapp’s proposal is a version of one of a few main categories of answers within academia.


    The Bigger Bang

    An excellent book on cosmology, quantum field theories, and the current state of physics. It is quite comprehensive without including any math to speak of. The level of detail does make it a more dense book than most science books you might pick up in a bookstore, but it is explicitly designed for the general reader.
     
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  3. LegionOnomaMoi

    LegionOnomaMoi Veteran Member
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    Books I do not recommend


    The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe


    I picked this book up early on in my study of physics. After all, it’s written by the eminent Sir Roger Penrose, it’s quite lengthy, and I felt sure it would take me from the elementary to the complex. In a way, it does. It just does this very badly. By chapter 6 you are dealing with calculus, and by chapter 14 with calculus on manifolds. It isn’t until chapter 17 that much of anything on physics is covered. More importantly, unless you already know the mathematical material covered in the chapters, it’s probably not worth reading them. I would think this would be intuitively obvious, as most students take several semesters of college mathematics before getting into complex analysis and differential geometry, so the idea that one can learn the finer points of these topics after reading a chapter is insane as far as I’m concerned.

    A Universe From Nothing: Why there is Something rather than Nothing

    This book tries be a contribution to modern atheist literature of the type written by Dawkins as well as an introduction to cosmology and physics for the layperson, and fails at both.

    The Quantum Universe

    I struggled before deciding to put this here, as I had originally had it in my first section. I like Brian Cox, and the book has a lot of good information presented in an easily digestible way. However, the level of detail included warrants a more careful treatment than is given. Like perhaps most books of this type, the authors’ personal take on certain interpretation issues, controversial ideas, and open questions often is presented as if it was a given. Much of the book is written from a particular perspective which is one of a few central interpretations of quantum formalism and by extension modern physics, but it is not presented as such. So I include it here for two reasons. The first is that there isn’t much in the book one can’t get from e.g., the first book I recommended. The second is that readers may come away with the impression that physicists all agree on certain things that they do not in fact agree with.

    Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness

    This book sort of combines the problems of Cox’s and A Universe from Nothing. For the most part, the authors are open about what aspects of their work is controversial, but not always. Either way, despite some excellent explanations, it isn’t a great book to use to get acquainted with modern physics thanks to the space taken up by the authors’ personal views.

    Thoughts, further recommendations, agrees/disagrees?
     
  4. billthecat

    billthecat Member

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    I recommend "Warped Passages" by Lisa Randall. She gives a great background/summary of the progress of particle physics. Here's the book summary from Amazon:

    Warped Passages
    is a brilliantly readable and altogether exhilarating journey that tracks the arc of discovery from early twentieth-century physics to the razor's edge of modern scientific theory. One of the world's leading theoretical physicists, Lisa Randall provides astonishing scientific possibilities that, until recently, were restricted to the realm of science fiction. Unraveling the twisted threads of the most current debates on relativity, quantum mechanics, and gravity, she explores some of the most fundamental questions posed by Nature—taking us into the warped, hidden dimensions underpinning the universe we live in, demystifying the science of the myriad worlds that may exist just beyond our own.


    I disagree that simplicity and accuracy are mutually exclusive. Perhaps simplicity and precision.

    I think a couple of Stephen Hawking's books are good introductions. I've also read a lot of shorter articles and papers online. Many major university physics departments have web sites with solid information ranging from simple introductions to the edge of the current theories.

    In my opinion, studying cosmology and particle physics to the point of understanding is akin to practicing to become good at any sort of skill. You have to practice the fundamentals over and over and get them down, and then build on them. I think following the path of discovery is a good choice.... from the discovery of electrons through quarks and the other elementary particles right up to the current belief by some that they've found the Higgs boson.
     
  5. LegionOnomaMoi

    LegionOnomaMoi Veteran Member
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    Thanks!


    I didn't mean to imply that they were mutually exclusive. That's one of the reasons I started this thread. Most of the books I listed I acquired looking for ways to explain concepts to students as simply as possible without being inaccurate. It is possible to do, but the simpler the explanation, the harder it becomes to actually convey the core concepts. Quantum physics is probably the best example of this, because so much of what the theory describes is known primarily through statistical description, and there remains widespread disagreement over the interpretation of the formalism/mathematics used in QM. The Quantum Universe has some great explanations and a lot of detail. I still go back and forth over whether or not I would recommend it. The reason is (rather ironically) the well-explained details themselves. By going beyond what the first book on my list covers (mainly in terms of the level of detail rather than scope), the authors of The Quantum Universe have to make even more concepts just as simple, and not infrequently this means giving the wrong impression. I believe the cavalier use of the term "particle", for example, is misleading.

    Perhaps misleading is a better word. It's not usually that simplification means inaccuracy, or at least it doesn't mean their or outright errors. It means that the removal of technical descriptions in place of fuzzier, broader, less exact, and easier explanations makes it far more likely that the reader will get the wrong idea rather than just an incomplete understanding.

    Do you have a favorite or two?

    I agree, but I would add that even more important than following the path of discovery is doing practice problems. However, I'm less concerned here with that level of understanding. Most people who read books like most of those I have listed and the one you did are interested in gaining a very general understanding of some of the intriguing (even downright baffling) aspects of modern physics.

    For those who want to go beyond, understanding complex analysis (which takes a good deal of study of calculus first), matrix algebras along with some other areas of mathematics is absolutely essential. Basic quantum mechanics involves probability and statistics (and therefore calculus), an understanding of Euclidean and Hilbert spaces, and a great deal of vector and matrix operations. And for those of us who came to physics from mathematics, it requires some really irritating notations and terminology (did they really have to go with bras and kets?).

    However, there are books out there for those who are interested in getting to that level. I wish I had had this book when I started: 1000 Solved Problems in Modern Physics

    Just like math, the key to learning is doing problems. This is especially true because of the amount of math involved in much of physics.
     
  6. uberrobonomicon4000

    uberrobonomicon4000 Active Member

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    You forgot to mention me. I can explain the universe a lot better than any book can.
     
  7. LegionOnomaMoi

    LegionOnomaMoi Veteran Member
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    I just assumed that was so obvious it didn't require mentioning. It's just one of those things that goes without saying, like e.g., that in order to read the books, you need to be literate.
     
  8. uberrobonomicon4000

    uberrobonomicon4000 Active Member

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    Others have posted books, but I am a visual person and I know some people like to relate the information they gather to visuals so I am providing some supplemental material so everyone can get a general idea of what we know about the universe.

    Popular Science - Map of the Universe - 2011

    The above is a digital, interactive mapping, using computers to plot and chart different points or objects in the known universe. That which have been discovered and is capable of being viewed and studied by current telescopes and technology (everything that is observable).
     
    #8 uberrobonomicon4000, Mar 24, 2013
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2013
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  9. dust1n

    dust1n Zindīq

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    You have a blog, Legion?
     
  10. LegionOnomaMoi

    LegionOnomaMoi Veteran Member
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    I get sick of myself on a forum; I can't imagine how much others do let alone how bad it would be if I actually had a blog.
    Granted, it's a small sample size, but if we look at the number of replies to threads I've started (and we remove the "replies" that are mine), discounting one outlier the number is almost 0.
     
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  11. uberrobonomicon4000

    uberrobonomicon4000 Active Member

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    You really should start a blog or some type of website.

    You seem to be very knowledgeable on a wide variety of topics.

    You also seem to have a witty humor. That is always good for a blog or site.

    I'm sure people could learn a lot from you and you could provide some valuable information to people who would like to expand their knowledge base.
     
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  12. LegionOnomaMoi

    LegionOnomaMoi Veteran Member
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    I was looking around to try to find out which of the math books I know about/own might be available for free online and I happened upon a text I bought a while ago on physics. It's an extremely extensive workbook I highly recommend:
    1000 Solved Problems in Modern Physics
     
  13. gnostic

    gnostic The Lost One

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  14. LegionOnomaMoi

    LegionOnomaMoi Veteran Member
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    I have started a blog. It needs a lot of criticism:
    Research Reviews | Reviewing research & scholarship so you don't have to

    Any criticism or help would be gratefully received and I would be more than glad to integrate my submissions to my blog with my contributions to the forums. I am terrible at starting threads, so I thought this might be a good way to do so unofficially in a way that can begin discussions here. However, as I am terrible at starting discussions or making blogs/thread starts interesting I would be grateful for help (if that is within the forum rules).
     
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  15. LegionOnomaMoi

    LegionOnomaMoi Veteran Member
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    I have long been an advocate for the series The Theoretical Minimum as a means for self-study of physics. Recently, the lecturer Susskind has written two books to complement his lecture series (originally part of MIT's OCW project, and it continues to be a part of it). However, despite their relatively low-cost I haven't had the money to spend to buy the books just to review them. I recently did so. They are both excellent sources and nicely complement the first lecture series freely available. The first book covers mathematical preliminaries in addition to classical mechanics, while the second is on quantum mechanics. However, it is possible to purchase either as a stand alone, as the book on quantum mechanics does seek to be self-contained and does review the mathematical pre-requisites (simply in less detail, at least at points covered in the first book to which the reader is referred).
     
  16. shawn001

    shawn001 Well-Known Member

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    I work with people who work with Sloan.

    The Sloan Digital Sky Survey has created the most detailed three-dimensional maps of the Universe ever made, with deep multi-color images of one third of the sky, and spectra for more than three million astronomical objects. Learn and explore all phases and surveys—past, present, and future—of the SDSS.

    SDSS-III DR12

    Planck Satellite

    Planck > Home


    NASA's Eyes on the solar sytem

    Download NASA's Eyes

    NASA's Eyes on Earth

    Download NASA's Eyes
     
  17. Jaiket

    Jaiket Well-Known Member

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    The Brian Greene book made me want to understand physics. I still don't but I'm getting there. I have the first Theoretical Minimum book.

    This website,

    How to become a GOOD Theoretical Physicist

    looks interesting.

    It should be possible, these days, to collect all knowledge you need from the internet. Problem then is, there is so much junk on the internet. Is it possible to weed out those very rare pages that may really be of use? I know exactly what should be taught to the beginning student.
     
  18. LegionOnomaMoi

    LegionOnomaMoi Veteran Member
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    Most popular science articles, books, and shows oversimplify to the point of being misleading or just downright wrong, and the sensationalism doesn't help. Then there are a minority of people like me who go in the other direction and can't manage to simplify enough. The more difficult the subject matter, the more skilled one has to be to present it in an accessible and accurate form. Generally speaking, no single source can do this, but for QM I believe I have finally found the perfect package that rests mostly on one book: Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum. I'm not a big fan of Susskind as a physicist, but he could be 10x worse than I believe and I'd still sing his praises for the amount of work he's done trying to present difficult subjects with maximum accuracy and the "theoretical minimum" amount of material and work needed. His taped lectures from his continuing ed. courses at Stanford have been around for years (and not only do most if not all have updated versions, there is additional material), and can be found on the theoretical minimum site, iTunes, YouTube, and probably many other places. However, his books are fairly new, the first (more or less) covering classical physics and the second the center of the Perfect Package for Popular Physics (PPPP).

    Quantum mechanics poses an especially difficult problem when it comes to popular accounts because you really can't understand it at all if you don't have some exposure to the math. However, that doesn't mean we require the approach of the only person I know of who's worse than me at simplifying: Sir Roger Penrose. In his ~40 chapter Road to Reality, after the first few chapters he gets into material that, for most of the following chapters, requires a course or two in some area of mathematics or physics to understand, and once you're able to understand it, you don't need to read it. But I digest...(not really, come to think of it I can't remember when I last ate...)

    So we have the core, or part 1, of the PPPP (PPPPp1). I highly recommend buying The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics, so much so that I have made it the second part or PPPPp2. You don't need to read it all, particularly if you aren't interested in classical physics and you just want to learn about the cool stuff in QM. However, it contains the "theoretical minimum" amount of mathematics in an easy, conceptual way that is very helpful for understanding some of the material in the QM book and you don't need to really understand much of the (very clearly marked) mathematical parts it to get a lot more out of the second book. Also, unlike most quantum physics books (well, the ones that I used to learn and use now for research) these don't cost somewhere between $50 to $150 a pop. They're cheap.

    Which brings me to the next part of the PPPP, or PPPPp3. I was recently given (or loaned, although I don't see why he'd want it back) Schaum's Outlines Quantum Mechanics (2nd ed.). PPPPp3 is not for reading but for reference. In some ways its actually a way to find out what to type into google if you aren't sure of something.

    I'm not going to sugar coat it. For an upper-level undergrad or beginning grad student who was struggling in a course (like the one whence came my book) most if not all of the PPPPp3 is review, rehash, practice, and simplification (compared to the required textbook). This means that you are expected to know a fair amount of calculus and pre-calculus, and partly so that you can be introduced to more complicated math.

    The upshot is that, again, PPPPp3 isn't for reading. There are parts of it that are readable and informative that can be looked up if you are curious about "spin" or something like that, but for the most part if you are capable of really using this as a resource itself you should buy one of the classic beginning QM textbooks like Shankar's. It's more about a cheap book that contains the technical stuff simplified enough so that you can use it to look up stuff on Wikipedia or watch a specific lecture form Susskind's own QM lectures (or others; the best I've found for beginners is, I think, Binney's Oxford lectures but I haven't had time to review MIT's Quantum Physics I). Also good and perhaps the most comprehensive fairly beginning level introduction to modern physics is Tom Shutt's "Introduction to Modern Physics" (Phys. 221) that at least used to be offered via ITunesU, although a quick search for it didn't yield any hits.

    For the really ambitious who want to tackle quantum field theory or particle physics, we have:
    Han, M. Y. (2004). A Story of light: A Short Introduction to Quantum Field Theory of Quarks and Leptons. World Scientific.
    Lancaster, T., & Blundell, S. J. (2014). Quantum Field Theory for the Gifted Amateur. Oxford University Press.
    McMahon, D. (2008). Quantum Field Theory Demystified. McGraw-Hill.

    And that's that. Next up, the beginner's guide to the Zeta function and elliptic curves defined over global fields.
     
  19. Jaiket

    Jaiket Well-Known Member

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    A friend bought this recently, says it's great.

    LOM, I'm at the point where I want to understand the Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formulations of classical mechanics (the principle of least action fascinates me). Are there any texts you've used that you think are good introductions?

    I don't know calculus of variations yet, and I've only just discovered the existence of functionals, to give you an idea of where I am mathematically.
     
  20. LegionOnomaMoi

    LegionOnomaMoi Veteran Member
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    Good question, and one I have to think about. The problem is that Lagrangian mechanics is fundamentally related to (even in some ways equivalent to!) Lagrange multipliers and optimization methods in calculus. It is very much an application of calculus. The Hamiltionian/Hamilton systems are a different issue altogether: Hamilton systems/Hamiltonians are fundamentally a matter of mechanics, and involve calculus only to the extent that this is needed (also, the Hamiltonian is an operator in quantum mechanics and equations of motion in classical mechanics). That said, an understanding of vector calculus and linear algebra is required of both, and nothing enables a decent understanding than actually doing problems (such as those in Schaum's Outlines, for example). I don't have that many sources to compare to those I've used to teach or to learn, but going on what I have, I might suggest checking out:
    Deriglazov, A. (2010). Classical mechanics: Hamiltonian and Lagrangian Formalism. Springer.
    Gignoux, C., & Silvestre-Brac, B. (2009). Solved Problems in Lagrangian and Hamiltonian Mechanics. Springer.
    Meyer, K., Hall, G., & Offin, D. (2008). Introduction to Hamiltonian Dynamical Systems and the N-Body Problem (2nd Ed.) (Applied Mathematical Sciences Vol. 90). Springer.
     
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