The Role of NATURE

The weekly science journal NATURE is one of the world’s most authoritative and certainly the most widely read of all general scientific publications. In its pages have appeared first announcements of a staggering array of scientific subjects. Its editorials (if sometimes rather too oracular, at others bordering on the pompous) are nearly always worth reading, and are often trenchant, powerful, critical essays. Its pages have celebrated the dynamics of great scientific discoveries, and have enabled many recent notorious and troubling scientific ethical problems and other matters to be discussed openly. NATURE has discussed the state of the world on innumerable occasions and has in late years dealt with problems of definitive significance to members of Science for Peace — e.g. SDI, including ‘brilliant pebbles’; Chernobyl; the greenhouse effect; ozone depletion; the Gulf War; the Kuwait Oil well fires; nuclear arms in the Middle East, etc. etc. In this number of the Science for Peace Bulletin a few of the matters raised in the pages of NATURE in recent months are noted and considered. In no way should it be assumed that the opinions or positions expressed in NATURE are always to be applauded or deferred to. The virtue of NATURE articles is that they do reflect a great range of viewpoints which — naturally enough — should be available for our critical appraisal.

Problems Considered in NATURE

The Kuwait Oilfield Fires

‘The deliberate firing of the Kuwait oil wells by the Iraqis is an act of gross environmental vandalism. But the likely impacts on the climate have been exaggerated.’ This statement from R.D Small (‘Environmental impact of fires in Kuwait’, NATURE, March 7, 1991) is the first of such claims to appear in NATURE. Its broad conclusions were subsequently supported by two more NATURE reports — one by Browning et al. (‘Environmental effects from burning oil wells in Kuwait’) and another by Bakan et al. (‘Climate response to smoke from the burning oil wells in Kuwait’) — both in NATURE, May 30, 1991. With certain differences in methodology of data collection and modelling, these studies assert that damage will not be on a global scale. The abstract from the paper by Browning et al. essentially states the position arrived at:

Model calculations, constrained by satellite observations, indicate that most of the smoke from the oil fires in Kuwait will remain in the lowest few kilometres of the troposphere. Beneath the plume there is a severe reduction in daylight, and a daytime temperature drop of 10°C within Pe. 200km of the source. Episodic events of acid rain and photochemical smog will occur within 1, 000 — 2, 000km of Kuwait. But changes in the Asian summer monsoon are unlikely to exceed the natural interannual variability and stratospheric ozone concentrations are unlikely to be affected.

In a yet more recent report, by Johnson et al. in NATURE, October 17, 1991, fairly similar conclusions to the earlier ones were presented. This latest report is perhaps ‘reassuring’, since it means that in the 4 1/2 months since the earlier reports their broad predictions are holding up — notably that ‘although the effects may be significant on a regional scale, those on a global scale, including the Asian summer monsoon, are likely to be insignificant.’

Effects of the War on the Persian Gulf

Notwithstanding the above, M.B. Carbonell pointed out, in ‘Pollution and the Persian Gulf’, (NATURE, March 7, 1991) that the ‘waters of the Persian Gulf are not well confined, despite the narrowness of the Strait of Hormuz, which links the Gulf to the Arabian Sea any environmental impact on the Gulf waters is rapidly exported to the Arabian Sea and then to the Indian Ocean. For this reason and because, as he stated, the Gulf War was producing ‘increased pollution of Gulf waters and its impacts cannot be assessed directly’, Carbonell recommended monitoring the discharge of Gulf waters in the Strait of Hormuz and in the western Gulf of Oman. ‘If immediate action is taken, the first measurements will record pre-war conditions. Subsequent shifts in levels of contamination of the out-flowing waters might be used to assess the environmental impact of the war on both the Gulf waters and those of adjacent seas.’

Chernobyl … Again

The NATURE editorial of May 2, 1991 (‘Facing up to the Chernobyl accident’) asserted that ‘The cause of the accident was an ill-planned and unauthorized experiment carried through incompetently in circumstances in which malfunctioning nuclear reactors would not have been considered more remarkable than, say, trucks that had broken down.’ The editorial also claims that ‘The remedy is glasnost, which means the technical publication of the details. What has happened to those evacuated from the … site, what does cytology say about their exposure in the aftermath …, where are they now and what arrangements have been made for their supervision and care? … The only sufficient memorial to those who died is that it should be made public in exhaustive detail. However … ‘the past five years have also emphasized … that good management can reduce both the risks of accident and their seriousness.’

In the same May 2 NATURE, Steven Dickman (‘World researchers to take a closer look at Chernobyl’) writes of WHO support of an international research programme to study the effects of Chernobyl and notes that the USSR itself has already begun to form a research centre at Obninsk, 100 km from Moscow, to coordinate research on the effects of the accident. Japan is already the first member state of the WHO to pledge a large sum ($20 million) to improve facilities at Obninsk. Other member nations are expected to follow the Japanese lead.

Long-term support for the (Obninsk) programme is an absolute necessity … because many of the cancer cases will not emerge for another 5-15 years or more.

The programme will attempt to track the progress of several types of cancer, the incidence of which is expected to rise … the first cancers and other abnormalities to emerge in the next few years are expected to be leukaemias, followed by thyroid disorders after a 15- to 20-year latency period.

Another focus … will be to assess the psychological and psychosocial effects … Inspection teams from WHO and the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency have reported that the largely rural local population blamed a variety of illnesses, especially among children, on radiation, even when this was clearly not the cause. The reported increase in children’s illness, and in high blood pressure, anemia and pulmonary disorders in the adult population are thought to be due more to feelings of depression and helplessness … than to the effects of radiation.

Unfortunately, it is claimed that ‘Western experts say there were very few data available from the region before 1988 to use as a baseline for the study.’

Still in the same May 2 NATURE, is an article by Peter Aldhous (‘Five-year toll: 10,000 dead from Chernobyl?’), which examines the claim by physicist V. Chernousenko that 7,000-10,000 of the 60,000 brought in to clean up after the mishap have already died of radiation exposure. The official USSR death toll is 31! However, the UK Atomic Energy Authority ‘estimates that Chernobyl will eventually cause 10,000 excess cancer deaths in the Soviet Union. This represents only 0.03 per cent of the natural Soviet cancer rate.’

Chernousenko’s claims were rejected as grossly exaggerated by the Soviet Ministry for Nuclear Power and Industry, but some foreign scientists are concerned for the health and welfare of Soviet scientists, who still labour at Chernobyl, and who are even working inside the so-called ‘Sarcophagus’ that now encloses the destroyed reactor. It is claimed that Soviet physicists are ‘working in primitive plastic oversuits in an area likely to be rich in plutonium, and seem to have no equipment to measure surface contamination with alpha particles …’

Israel as Nuclear Power

In a NATURE editorial of June 6, 1991 (Israel’s nuclear weapons in the open’) the extremely important question of Israel’s status as a nuclear power were subjected to critical scrutiny. Some extracts from the editorial follow.

On one reading of the situation, Israel has the strongest possible reason to be a nuclear power. It is at least technically at war with most of its neighbours … and evidently vulnerable to conventional attack … So what better means of avoiding military catastrophe than to threaten the retaliatory destruction of the perpetrator’s capital and other population centres? This is classical deterrence. Moreover, it hardly matters whether the threat is open or implicit. Even as things are, any neighbour planning a serious attack on Israel would have to calculate the risks of nuclear retaliation.

The editorial notes that US President Bush has proposed an agreement among arms suppliers to decline to supply weapons of mass destruction to Middle East and North African states. NATURE suggests that the British proposal would remove some of the uncertainty in the Middle East, but that

… ironically, Israeli commentators have already reacted by arguing that a freeze on nuclear weapons in the Middle East would be unfair to Israel when nuclear forces are the only valid conterpoise to the potential preponderance of conventional forces that it faces.

However, …

the need for … nuclear retaliation has … been eroded by the recent demonstration of the mobility of US conventional forces, likely only to be reinforced by the decision of the United States to base substantial stockpiles of military equipment in Israel …

It is also claimed that

… the United States is reconciled to becoming the de facto physical guarantor of Israel’s continued existence if a regional peace settlement cannot be reached. There are many in Israel who will not trust that development, let alone welcome it. But they have no choice.

The US Energy Strategy

The NATURE editorial of February 28, 1991 (‘Squaring circle of US energy’) considers the factors that may influence the new Energy Strategy of the US, noting that

… the administration seems to have set its face against increased taxes on (gasoline), hoping instead to rely on still tougher regulations to improve the efficiency of new cars (and encourage the disposal of older inefficient cars). The trouble is that the policy will not work or … will do so only at needless economic cost — that of retiring old cars prematurely, for example.

Also,

Past energy strategy … has not been to balance supply and demand by the price mechanism, but to help producers with tax incentives and, when seemly, to shield consumers from prices that reflect true costs. These devices stimulated both consumption and fears that supply would be exhausted, whence the designation of important oil fields as strategic reserves and the ban on exports of crude petroleum.

The editorial continues:

Yet oil consumption would be most simply and surely reduced by increasing its price, either by an import tariff (opposed by the oil companies) or by an excise tax (hated by consumers, many of whom are also voters).

Lastly,

On the complaint that higher gasoline taxes would hurt the poor … first, if the cost of food and other necessities is a component in the calculation of welfare, why not have gasoline stamps as well as food stamps? And, second, why not soak the gas guzzlers in the cause of social equity?

This editorial demands several responses. In the first place it (correctly) indicates that despite the tendency of the US to deplore price-fixing arrangements such as subsidies and tax incentives in its trade partners and competitors, the US itself has little compunction about applying such practices where its own interests are to be served. Secondly, for that part of the population above the poverty level in societies in which there is wide car ownership, there is little sign that anything save a truly enormous increase in the price of gasoline would much reduce its use. I can recall when, on moving from Australia to Norway in 1973, I found that with cars about twice, and gasoline about three times, the Australian prices, neither per capita car ownership or distances driven per year were that much different from those in Australia. On remarking this to Norwegian friends, several of them answered that many Norwegians would deny themselves food rather than go without a car or the right to drive it as far as they wished. I believe this was largely correct and, so long as people have additional disposable income and, as with most North Americans, live in cities designed for the car, and poorly served by alternative transport systems, I believe it is still correct (Editor). Thirdly, perhaps gasoline stamps would be a good idea to keep the poor ‘auto-mobile’. The real question is, however, how to redesign our cities and our transport systems so as to be able to reduce car use drastically in almost every country of the North. Or else, develop a drastically different car technology dependent on other, non-polluting, energy sources. In a hurry …

Science Education

The problem of declining interest in an education in science is linked to declining scientific job opportunities in many countries, and that is a thorny issue, being in turn, linked to changing economic times, and a general revulsion towards science and technology by the public at large. The same public nevertheless continues to use the products of science and technology as never before, and to clamour irritably for more breakthroughs.

In NATURE of May 2, 1991, in an editorial article (‘Shakespeare’s school’) the recent criticism by Prince Charles of the replacement of Shakespeare’s likeness on British £20 banknotes by that of Michael Faraday is taken as departure point for a critical appraisal of the British education system. Thus:

What is wrong with British school education outside Scotland (which has more liberal arrangements) is that it is not general education at all, but for many students an inadequate preparation for a life of specialism. It is commonplace that young people with an interest in science are required to commit themselves for, or perhaps against, when they are younger than sixteen; changing course later is difficult, often impossible … the educational system is only now waking up to the need that courses in higher education should last for four years, not three … Can anybody wonder that the recruitment of young people into science and technology remains a British headache?

Quite. Yet in Britain, as in other countries bedevilled by a wide-scale falling off in interest in science among school pupils, the causes are no doubt more numerous than just a faulty secondary education system. There, as in Canada, the cries against science by many of the young are likely to include such familiar complaints as — science is ‘too hard’; girls can’t do it; science job prospects are lousy; financial rewards are meagre; as a scientist, you are always an employee with little say in major policy decisions; scientists are cold, unfeeling, inhuman; scientists are destroying the world.

What a contrast to those of us who entered the world of science forty years ago when, despite the technological and scientific involvements in World War II, there seemed almost endless public excitement over science and its ability to transform the lot of humankind. Were we naive, ignorant, or have we just been unlucky in the way history has unfolded? All three, no doubt.

Theatre Ballistic Missiles and SDI

D.C. Wright and L. Gronlund (‘Underflying “Brilliant Pebbles” ‘, NATURE, April 25, 1991) have calculated that the claims of the US Strategic Defense Initiative Office (SDZO) that ‘Brilliant Pebbles’, the ‘proposed space-based anti-missile system, could be used to destroy theatre ballistic missiles such as the extended range Scud (the al Abbas)’ is fallacious. There is one simple reason: Brilliant Pebbles has been acknowledged by SDIO as being able to intercept missiles only above about 100 km, while missiles such as the comparatively crude al Abbas Scud and the more sophisticated Chinese DF-3 can be adjusted so that (though range will be reduced) they can easily underfly the effective trajectory of Brilliant Pebbles. Although the DF-3 has a maximum range of 2800 km, with the drastically lowered trajectory required to get beneath Brilliant Pebbles, the DC-3 can still exceed 1500 km, a range that Wright and Gronlund declare as still ‘sufficient to threaten most targets in the Middle East. As they also point out, theatre ballistic missiles are not accurate weapons — the inaccuracy of the al Abbas is 3-5 km, that of the DC-3 2.4 (dropping by a factor of 2-3 at reduced trajectory to get it under that of Brilliant Pebbles). Neither weapon can therefore be thought of as other than a terror weapon. Lowered trajectories would not much alter their effectiveness in this respect.

Non Proliferation

In a NATURE editorial of September 26, 1991 (‘How to make a stronger NPT’), the questions are asked: ‘When will the next nuclear war break out? And how will it begin?’ The basis of these questions is the discovery of how far advanced Iraq was in developing nuclear weapons. Thus,

If Iraq (was) … so far advanced on this .sinister path, what can be said about Pakistan, whose ostensible nuclear programme goes back to the 1960s, about north Korea (which has announced almost publicly that it has a reactor in operation without safeguards), South Africa and, for that matter, Israel?

Also,

… it is now prudent to suppose that all of the countries which have not so far signed the

NTP are intrinsically nuclear powers — as are even some of the signatories (among them was Iraq).

The NATURE editorial addresses a number of matters, not all strictly relevant to the title, but its main thrust is to consider how best to achieve a ‘modest tightening of the NTP, including some kind of public register of supplies of nuclear equipment along the lines that the prime minister of Japan has been advocating for arms sales in general. The case for sanctions against illicit suppliers and their customers deserves hearing.’

However, the next recommendation is both a hotly disputable proposition and, in the present state of the world, would be absurdly difficult to achieve as well as being fraught with great global dangers (NATURE is far from infallible in its judgments): –

The more desirable end-point is more drastic; a general understanding within the United Nations that the novel development of nuclear weapons is an offense against the international community, and must be stopped (as will, eventually, be the development in Iraq). That would require a decision by the UN Security Council that non-signatories of the amended NPT must involuntarily submit their nuclear installations to international safeguards. If the Security Council decided as recently as a year ago that the invasion of Kuwait must be undone, why should it not take this further step in this direction?

Very chilling, this last sentence, with its implication of the use of more massive force by the US and its allies — several of whom (including, still, the US) are hundreds of millions of dollars behind in their financial promises to the UN.

The Future of India

All thinking persons ought to be concerned about the future of India. India is at once the world’s largest democracy, a country of great internal restlessness and violence, a land of vast contrast between the rich and the poor, a country that cannot reliably feed its millions, where tens of millions are homeless, yet a state with the ability to manufacture even the high technology of today’s world. India is also a country of nearly 900 million inhabitants, which increases by 17 million per year, and which possesses large, comparatively well-equipped and well-trained armed services. In noting many of these points the NATURE editorial of May 30, 1991 (‘What will happen now to India?’) poses the question of the fate of the subcontinent following Rajiv Ghandi’s assassination. The editorial says that in India –

The contrasts are often shocking to people from elsewhere, puzzled that peasant villagers still limp along without elementary sanitary technology in a country that builds its own nuclear power stations and space orbital rockets. The justification of the persistence of the contrasts is a kind of trickle-down theory of social and economic development — crumbs spill from rich tables, people who cut their teeth on building nuclear power stations eventually turn their attention to village latrines. There has been some proof in the past few decades that the theory works, but not quickly enough to assuage regional passion and discontents.

Speaking of violence, regional quarrels and unified India the editorial goes on –

… the benefits of union are too often overlooked. Not the last of these is what union has done for India’s intellectual life. Since Independence, the centre has created throughout provincial India universities in the image of India’s best, both by the efforts of enlightened public servants at the University Grants Committee and by the private foundation of institutions as different as the Tata Institute at Bombay and the Raman Institute at Bangalore, both (among others in India) now research centres of international repute. In short, the centre has made possible the creation in India of a respected intellectual cadre whose chief misfortune is that so many of its members choose the brighter opportunities overseas.

Finally –

In a society still tolerant of the notion that there are leaders and the led, that is a challenge for the intellectual community of India. The goal must be to make the poor of India prosperous.

This is noble-sounding stuff, indeed, and the punchline about the poor being made prosperous has a goodly ring. But look, do nuclear station engineers really turn to constructing effective village latrines? Is it not a fact that the gap is widening, not narrowing, between the 300 million very poor of India who have to subsist on virtual starvation rations, and the small group of the affluent who are comparatively comfortably placed? What of the 64% of Indians who are illiterate? One needs a very optimistic imagination to see in these things major evidence of a trickle-down effect.

But there is more, much more. In a recent article, Badrinath Krishna Rao (Tack to the Future’, The Globe and Mail, August 15, 1991) takes an almost totally opposed view to the essentially optimistic one of the NATURE editorial. Thus she writes:

The birthday of every nation is an occasion for euphoria, and modern India — born 44 years ago today — celebrates its Independence Day with great gusto. This year, however, the fanfare should be somewhat subdued as the challenges that lie ahead for India are almost insurmountable.

Rao points to the weakness of India’s economy and notes that ‘the chronic problems of indigence, hunger and unemployment continue to defy solution. To more than 800 million Indians who survive on less than 20 cents and 1,200 calories a day, talk of independence is a cruel joke. Rao continues:

Jettisoning the idea of achieving economic self-reliance through state intervention, the Congress Party now speaks the language of deregulation, private initiative, competition and integration with the world economy. Suddenly, a free-market economy is considered the panacea for India’s ills.

However, Rao claims that ‘given the magnitude of India’s other problems’ such measures will not work. So much for trickle-down economics.

Rao is also highly critical of the intellectuals of India so far as their capacity or willingness to help the country is concerned.

Thus where the NATURE editorial sees the leadership of the Indian democracy as ‘a challenge for the intellectual community’ Rao sees ‘the 10 per cent of Indians who make up the intellectual and creative elites (as seeming) scarcely interested in filling the bill. Most have become cynics or are so overwhelmed by the ruinous course of events in recent years that they have decided to look after themselves.’ Rao’s major hope for the future of India seems pinned on a revitalization of elements in the ‘incandescent vision that has guided its civilization over the ages.’ But, except for mystics and visionaries who can keep their eye on some ineffable and distant future, such a prospect will seem both thin and remote.

Social and economic instabilities in so huge a population make India’s future very uncertain. Rao claims that while India is still nominally and constitutionally a democracy its actual ‘government differs little from an authoritarian regime.’ Misery and social injustice beget violence, and violence is contagious and always apt to be exported or transported to other places.

India’s tragedy is that it almost certainly cannot become a country whose affluence compares with those of the North. Even among these (e.g. Britain), much of their wealth, accumulated industrial plant, and ability to generate further wealth through production or manufacturing, are results not so much of greater sagacity or industriousness than is the norm in much poorer countries, but of historical circumstances in which a techno-industrial revolution occurred simultaneously with expanding literacy, markets, communications and the assured availability of abundant natural resources (including food, lumber, fibres, and minerals). It is by no means the case that in many instances of the transformation of peasant-based agricultural states to modern industrial states these natural resource commodities were available within the country whose industry boosted it to wealth and power (again Britain is an excellent example). But in such cases, ready access to such commodities had to be assured.

India of the present, with its poor natural resources, and lack of accessibility to such resources at prices it can afford, huge, largely unskilled population, is in a poor position to do the kind of bootstrap operation on itself that, for example, the US would recommend. Radically different approaches, more modest and realistic in scope and scale, are required if the basic problems of all Indians merely getting enough to eat are ever to be overcome. It is to this sort of end that the North should be attending, but not by assuming that the usual absurd exhortations to industrialise at all costs will or should be applied here.

‘Terraforming’ Mars

In a very long NATURE article by McKay et al (‘Making Mars Habitable’, August 8, 1991) the possibility of transforming Mars ‘into a planet suitable for habitation by plants, and conceivably humans is discussed. The conclusions include the following:

Our main deduction is that on Mars a CO2-rich, plant-habitatable atmosphere would seem feasible to construct, given adequate reservoirs of CO2 and H20, whereas an 02-rich, human habitable atmosphere would be very difficult to construct and possibly impractical to warm.

… one could propose the following … production of (chlorofluorocarbons) (or other greenhouse gases) starts on Mars and the surface temperature warms up by 20K. The regolith and polar caps release their CO2 and the pressure rises to 100 mbar. One of two things could then happen. If there were large regolith and polar CO2 reservoirs the pressure would continue to rise on its own. If these were absent, the CO2 pressure would stabilize, and additional CO2 would have to be released from carbonate minerals. At this point (perhaps between 100 and 105 years) Mars may be suitable for plants. If there was a mechanism for sequestering the reduced carbon, these plants could slowly … produce an O2-rich atmosphere in perhaps 100,000 years. If sufficient N2 could also be released from putative soil deposits, and the CO2 level kept low enough, then a human-breathable atmosphere would be produced. Continued production of the (chlorofluorocarbons) that absorb radiation across the whole spectrum would be required to maintain the warm temperature. Destruction of ozone by these CFCs would probably require these gases to be made in sufficient amount (considerably in excess of current terrestrial production rates) to constitute an ultraviolet shield. This proposed process for terraforming Mars relies only on processes that have been demonstrated, and in fact are current, on Earth.

What is one to make of this extraordinary stuff? Some readers may scoffingly dismiss programmes such as the above as the type of crude positivistic dreaming familiar in the early pioneering days of science fiction. But we should not be too flippant. In Vol._ 9 No. 3 (p. 14) of Science for Peace Bulletin, the article ‘Life on Mars’ by Frederick Turner, published in Harper’s of August 1989, was noted. He proposed — very seriously — to ‘employ the beautiful and terrible heroic spirit of humankind, ready for suffering and sacrifice, when we no longer have war and nationalist myth … and the billions of dollars and rubles which employ millions of workers and serve as a fiscal and technological flywheel, to keep the economy going’ to — wait for it — ‘Garden Mars’ ! And in the Vol. 10 No. 2 Bulletin (p. 9) — lest anyone think the NATURE article by McKay et al (American Scientists all) is too far-fetched to merit serious attention — it may be recalled that the ‘cost of a manned mission to Mars currently estimated at $500,000 million and rising …’ has been given at least tacit approval by President George Bush: ‘the only footprints on the Moon are American footprints’ and ‘it is America’s destiny to lead’. Bush called for ‘a sustained program of manned exploration of the Solar System and the permanent settlement of space.’

Perhaps the US’s present economic problems will inhibit the actual implementation of such Faustian dreams. But, make no mistake, regardless of ‘greens’ in the US, many in positions of capital influence are still possessed by gargantuan ambitions that could readily contemplate such scenarios as the above. And there are plenty of folks around whose conception of the ‘greening’ of Mars is roughly akin to that of making green golf courses in the deserts of the US west — an ambition already fulfilled in innumerable actual examples. There is a kind of mind that, with ruthless positivism, insists that if something can be done it must and will be done. If the Moon can be mined, mine it. If Mars can one day, be farmed or ‘gardened’, get on with the steps that will allow this to happen. Perhaps we should take comfort from the fact that McKay et al’s NATURE paper is speculative and based on many approximations and surmises. But positivistic ‘visionaries’ never let such details really deter them — or prevent them from action. If eventually — allowing for the very optimistic guess that anything like humankind will still he around to have the slightest interest in gardening or inhabiting Mars — Mars really could be terraformed to something on which humans could live, it would then be a bit late to decide that we never needed it; that as an object, and an aspect of the formation and evolution of the Solar System, Mars would have been far more informative to us as it used to be.

Then there is the other thing. At what point will human beings say to themselves: ‘with the mess we have made of this planet — our one true home — must we not keep our greedy simian fingers off all the other wondrous objects of the universe of which we comprehend so little?’ A pox on all the ‘pioneers’ who will try to go out and destroy Mars. They are not one jot more admirable than the morons who spray-paint rocks, and carve their names on trees. Indeed, they are a million times worse.

Let science divert its huge strengths from absurd adventurings in cosmic impiety.

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