Galileo, the Church, and Apollo 15

by Matthew Cobb

The conflict between science and religion –  conflict that occurs every time religion decides it has anything to say about the way the natural world functions – threw up some of its greatest and most tragic examples during the “Renaissance”. There are lessons here for today, in particular for those who believe that science and religion can coexist as they deal with completely separate worlds – this idea has its roots in this period of history.

The Renaissance of European culture that occurred from the 14th century onwards was a consequence of the growth of mercantile wealth in Northern Italy and Spain, of trade contact with the Far East and of the impact of the Arab world, which had extended its influence far into southern Europe. The Renaissance was marked by an explosion of cultural development, and a resurgence of the ideas of Aristotle, Galen and many other Ancient thinkers. For example, Leonardo’s suggestion that semen comes from the man’s brain can be traced directly back to the ideas of the school of Pythagoras in the 6th century BC, ideas that were kept alive and transmitted via the Arab world.

But although the Renaissance gave rise to a new spirit of openness and discovery in all realms of culture, it also saw Aristotle’s ideas about the natural world turned into a stifling orthodoxy that crushed initiative and investigation. All the key scientific developments of the 17th century, from astronomy to zoology, therefore involved a reaction against the dogmatic interpretation of Aristotle’s views.

This disastrous transformation of Aristotle’s ideas came about through the work of Thomas Aquinas, an Italian monk and philosopher who lived in the 13th century. At the time a number of Church theologians were influenced by the great Arab philosopher, Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroës), and argued that philosophy and faith were separate matters. This was dangerous for the Church, which knew that too much free thinking could undermine faith, and therefore weaken its power.

Aquinas found a solution: using Aristotle’s philosophical ideas, he argued that faith and sense experience were not separate as Averroës argued, but complementary. The facts of the natural world, Aquinas suggested, could be known by sense experience, while spiritual truths such as the Resurrection could be known only by faith. Aquinas gave the Church the best of both worlds: it could use the power of Aristotle’s philosophy to examine moral questions and to understand the natural world, but all matters of faith remained firmly in its hands.

This view, which became known as the “Thomist dogma” (after Thomas Aquinas), led the Church to defend and promote all of Aristotle’s ideas, including those that had no immediate impact on theological issues. Among the positions that came under the protection of the Church was Aristotle’s version of the common-sense impression that the Sun goes round the Earth, in which the various planets and stars moved on gigantic, insubstantial “spheres”. To challenge Aristotle was to challenge part of the Church’s theology, whatever the truth might be.

In 1633, 350 years after the death of Aquinas, Galileo found himself caught in this trap when he published proof that the Earth goes round the Sun. The Church could have accepted such a sun-centred vision of the universe without damaging its theology (it eventually did… in 1992!), but once it had decided to approve Aristotle’s theory of the spheres, defending its authority became more important than defending the truth. And any decline in its authority could weaken its hold on the minds, money and actions of millions of people.

It is not clear exactly why the Church ended up obsessing about the Earth-centred universe, rather than, say, Aristotle’s theory of the generation of animals, which – at exactly the same time – was equally under attack, not only from Protestants such as Swammerdam and Steno (who shortly afterwards converted to Catholicism), but also from Italian Catholics like Francesco Redi and Marcello Malpighi. And even before Galileo found evidence for the heliocentric view of the universe, he had already made a major attack on  Aristotle’s world view, in his famous work on falling bodies, in particular his suggestion that – contrary to both Aristotle and common sense – objects with different masses fall at exactly the same speed, without the Church threatening him.

In fact, as a NASA webpage devoted to Galileo points out , the two question of falling bodies and the nature of the universe were intimately linked: “The problem, as [Galileo] saw it, was that the Aristotelian theory of motion, which referred all motion to a stationary earth at the center of the universe, made it impossible to believe the earth actually moves. Galileo went to work to develop a theory of motion consistent with a moving earth.”

When you actually do the experiment of dropping a feather and a lead ball, which have different masses, the ball drops faster because the resistance of the air is greater on the feather. Galileo recognised this, and concluded in his law of falling bodies that in a vacuum all objects, regardless of their weight, shape or specific gravity, are uniformly accelerated in the same way, and that the distance fallen is proportional to the square of the elapsed time (summary taken from here). Pretty smart, eh?

In 1971, David Scott and James Irwin spent a week on the surface of the moon, on the Apollo 15 mission. Towards the end of their final moonwalk, in homage to Galileo, David Scott showed that in a vacuum, a feather and a hammer  will fall at the same speed. As Mission Controller Joe Allen put it rather drily in the “Apollo 15 Preliminary Science Report”:

“During the final minutes of the third extravehicular activity, a short demonstration experiment was conducted. A heavy object (a 1.32-kg aluminum geological hammer) and a light object (a 0.03-kg falcon feather) were released simultaneously from approximately the same height (approximately 1.6 m) and were allowed to fall to the surface. Within the accuracy of the simultaneous release, the objects were observed to undergo the same acceleration and strike the lunar surface simultaneously, which was a result predicted by well-established theory, but a result nonetheless reassuring considering both the number of viewers that witnessed the experiment and the fact that the homeward journey was based critically on the validity of the particular theory being tested.”

Want to be really impressed? Watch it – it really is quite astonishing.

38 Comments

  1. Dave B.
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    “…the ball drops faster because the resistance of the air is greater on the feather…”

    Not necesarily. The resistance on the ball could be the same, or more, depending on the sizes. But it affects the ball less because the ball is heavier.

    I’m a nit picker, I know.

  2. NewEnglandBob
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    …but once it had decided to approve Aristotle’s theory of the spheres, defending its authority became more important than defending the truth.

    Some things have not changed to this day. Pope Ratzi is still doing the same thing – he considers rape by priests less important than defending the ‘authority’ of the church.

  3. Insightful Ape
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Please don’t forget the role of the bible in the persecution of Galileo.
    While the catholic church is not, and was not, supposed to be about a literal interpretation of the bible, it was precisely the conflict between the empirical data and a biblical story that Galileo into trouble. He was asked how was it possible that god could have stopped the sun from going around the earth such that the Israelites could finish their military campaign, as we read in the book of Joshua. His response? Amazingly he sought refuge in the teachings of St Augustin, saying that the bible is not to be taken literally. As we all know he didn’t get very far with that argument, just as the accomodationists today aren’t getting through to the millions who believe the world is 6000 years old by quoting Augustin.

  4. Squiddhartha
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Dude, you gonna leave that feather and hammer just lying there? Lunar litterer!

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 7, 2010 at 1:32 am | Permalink

      Dude, those astronaut suits didn’t permit knee bending enough to do that.

      Sorry to bust your joke, but the astronaut would have been forced to do a handstand or knee drop. And they were very concerned with leaks.

      It was only by accident that NASA found out that the Moon regolith didn’t harm the suits. Seems to happened at the later Apollo 17.

      That video is actually a good demonstration of the difficulties. The astronaut fell despite reaching for an object much higher up than a hammer-feather combo.

      • PeterKarim
        Posted June 7, 2010 at 4:41 am | Permalink

        I am sure they had “reachers” (or whatever those grabbers people with arthrites use) for picking up stuff, lunar rocks if nothing else.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted June 8, 2010 at 6:02 am | Permalink

          Yes, I believe so.

          They also had a lunch stand next to the trailers between shots. Or that is what I heard.

  5. stvs
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Church theologians were influenced by the great Arab philosopher, Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroës), and argued that philosophy and faith were separate matters.

    This is true, but only to the extent that al-Fārābī was relatively unknown to the medieval Christian West. Fārābī, who lived two centuries prior to Averroes and whom Maimonides considered the greatest philosopher subsequent to Aristotle, originated the idea that that philosophy and revelation are two different modes of thinking. Fārābī greatly influenced Averroes and the entire Islamic world up until the fall of the Abassids, or until the fundamentalist Islamic theologian al-Ghazālī wrote his influential The Incoherence of the Philosophers (depending upon your reading of history), both of which led to the Islamic decline in science.

    Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing contains a worthwhile analysis of this history.

    Ghazālī’s anti-science arguments in the 11th c. The Incoherence of the Philosophers would be quite familiar to both sides of the combatants in today’s science vs. religions wars, with many Christians as well as accommodationists using many of the same arguments as an 11th c. Islamic anti-science fundamentalist.

    • PeterKarim
      Posted June 7, 2010 at 4:49 am | Permalink

      With regards to Ghazali’s Tahafut al Falasifa (The Incoherence of philosphers), the good guys side did not go down without a fight: Ibn Rushd’s Tahafut al Tahafut (The Incoherence of incoherence), is an exellent (free) read:
      http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ir/tt/index.html

  6. stvs
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Church theologians were influenced by the great Arab philosopher, Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroës), and argued that philosophy and faith were separate matters.

    This is true, but only to the extent that al-Fārābī was relatively unknown to the medieval Christian West. Fārābī, who lived two centuries prior to Averroes and whom Maimonides considered the greatest philosopher subsequent to Aristotle, originated the idea that that philosophy and revelation are two different modes of thinking. Fārābī greatly influenced Averroes and the entire Islamic world up until the fall of the Abassids, or until the fundamentalist Islamic theologian al-Ghazālī wrote his influential The Incoherence of the Philosophers (depending upon your reading of history), both of which led to the Islamic decline in science.

    Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing contains a worthwhile analysis of this history.

    Ghazālī’s anti-science arguments in the 11th c. The Incoherence of the Philosophers would be quite familiar to both sides of the combatants in today’s science vs. religions wars, with many Christians as well as accommodationists using many of the same arguments as an 11th c. Islamic anti-science fundamentalist.

  7. Wayne Robinson
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    I wonder how the “Moon landing hoaxers” explain this? … NASA was so cunning, it constructed the Moon surface mockup in a vacuum chamber? The falcon feather was actually made of lead? They were also so cunning, that they slowed down the film of the fall of the two objects to match the one sixth gravity on the Moon.

    • Tulse
      Posted June 7, 2010 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      If one assumes the conclusion, one can always come up with explanations.

    • blue
      Posted June 7, 2010 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      they did it in post.

  8. Gunga Lagunga
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating stuff! However:

    For example, Leonardo’s suggestion that semen comes from the man’s brain…

    Oh that Da Vinci was a SLY one with the ladies, wasn’t he?

    C’mon baby, it most certainly wasn’t an affair… I was doing maths on your sister!

    • steve oberski
      Posted June 7, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      Da Vinci may have not been that much of a ladies man.

  9. Janus
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Good post.

    “The conflict between science and religion – conflict that occurs every time religion decides it has anything to say about the way the natural world functions”

    This gives the impression that conflicts don’t occur when religion says something about the ‘non-natural’ world. What the hell is that? Just say that conflicts occur whenever religion says anything about reality.

  10. Antonio Manetti
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    I believe Galileo’s proofs for heliocentricy were incorrect. Also, the Copernican assumption of orbital circularity required more epicycles to align the observed and computed results than were required by the ptolemaic system. Unfortunately, Galileo did not reference Kepler’s discovery of orbital elipticity, which would have strengthened the Heliocentrism hypotheses by eliminating the need for corrective epicycles altogether.

    It wasn’t until stellar aberration was observed in 1725 that the theory was conclusively shown to be correct.

    Where the Church erred was in its belief that such a proof would never be found. But, of course, it had been backed into a corner by Galileo, who forced the hand of the papal authorities. They could either admit error and loose credibility right then or sometime in the distant future, if the theory happened to be proven correct.

    • Wayne Robinson
      Posted June 7, 2010 at 1:15 am | Permalink

      Antonio Manetti, what makes you say that Galileo’s proofs of heliocentricity were wrong? From my reading, the Catholic Church had already abandoned the Ptolemy model and had adopted the Tycho Brahe model (the Earth was still in the centre and stationary. The Sun was orbiting the Earth. Mercury and Venus were orbiting the Sun. All the other planets were orbiting the Earth at a much greater distance). Geometrically, this is almost identical to the Copernican model and also has the advantage that it explains why the Earth is so “obviously” stationary and not spinning like a top, which it “obviously” not doing. Galileo had proved that the Earth was actually rotating by noting that the tides actually lagged the phases of the Moon (otherwise, high tide would always occur at full Moon).

      • Antonio Manetti
        Posted June 7, 2010 at 2:46 am | Permalink

        I don’t have the references at hand but I believe Galileo contended that the earth’s rotational and orbital motions were what caused the tides. In any event, the offered proofs were also deemed inadequate by the Church.

        The Tycho Brahe model attempts to salvage the idea of a stationary earth by having all the other planets rotate about the sun.

        Check it out at:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tychonian_system.svg

        • DavidW
          Posted June 7, 2010 at 2:50 am | Permalink

          I think he tried to use the tides as evidence of rotation, suggesting that it was the seas “sloshing around”

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 7, 2010 at 2:11 am | Permalink

      It wasn’t until stellar aberration was observed in 1725 that the theory was conclusively shown to be correct.

      Being nitpicky, and adding to previous comments, the Keplerian + Copernican theory was known to be correct earlier, it was tested against good enough observations I believe, and independently by Newton’s gravity theory.

      It was, as I understand it, the collective movement away from the more complex theories that was delayed, by the church among others. Aberration showed that those theories were incorrect.

      • Antonio Manetti
        Posted June 7, 2010 at 2:52 am | Permalink

        Kepler + Copernicus was correct in the sense that it squared with the observational data, not as a proof of heliocentrism.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted June 8, 2010 at 6:07 am | Permalink

          Ah, we use a different conception of correct.

          When I say “correct”, I mean that the (heliocentric, in this case) theory is correct; it makes falsifiable but not false predictions. That is (local) correctness.

          When you say “correct” you mean that it is the only remaining correct theory; the other theories have failed. That is a global property, but it is not exactly correct [sic!] to call it “correct”. It is better to say that such a theory is a fact IMO.

    • Posted June 7, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      Galileo had a lot of very good evidence for heliocentricity. For example, Galileo observed Venus going through a nearly full set of phases. This makes sense if Venus and Earth both orbit the sun and Venus is closer. It doesn’t make sense in a standard geocentric model since you have Venus orbiting in a way that always keeps the Earth, Venus and the Sun in a more or less straight line.

      There was also a lot of other evidence even prior to Galileo. Tycho Brahe’s data fit Kepler’s model very well and didn’t fir the others. Kepler’s model also related the orbits of the planets to each other something which no other model did. There was enough evidence prior to Galileo, and Galileo had strong additional evidence.

  11. DavidW
    Posted June 6, 2010 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    I think this massively underestimates the complexity of the Galileo debacle at the time.

    First, “scientists” as a separate profession didn’t exist until the 19th century, and the type of research he was carrying out was “natural theology” – learning more about God through learning about his creation; somewhat of a teleological view of things, but natural enough in a society where most, if not all, research was carried out by churchmen. It’s therefore difficult to talk of a “war on science” in a context where it would have meant a war against a different branch of the same organisation.

    Second, as Antonio points out, Galileo’s hypothesis was correct, but the evidence he adduced was not. From their point of view, of course, they didn’t know this so it’s slightly tangential, but even today we wouldn’t accept his reasoning (even if we might accept his conclusion for very different reasons). (Coincidentally, the reason that the research was carried out was to make it easier to predict star positions to enable astrological readings to be more accurate.)

    Third, a large part of the Galileo affair was down to local politics. In short, there was a pope (one of Galileo’s chums, in fact, Urban the somethingth iirc) with a diminishing power base who needed to appear strong, coupled with groups seeking to undermine said power. At the same time, Galileo claimed he had given an undertaking not to publish the heliocentric view without also including comments to the effect that this might never be knowable, and that the terracentric view was the view of the church. When the Inquisition revisited their files ten years later (when it all blew up), there was an unsigned document stating that Galileo had been warned not to publish at all; it’s been suggested that this was another forgery designed to undermine the pope’s position. The pope also claimed to have been misled, because Galileo’s comment on terracentricity seems, frankly, to be more than a little sarcastic.

    Fourth, as pointed out, Galileo defended himself by pointing to St Augustine of Hippo. St Augustine pointed out that if the religious made claims that were in conflict with the body of knowledge built up through natural philosophy/theology, that the claimant would become a laughing stock – particularly by the non-religious who were wise in the ways of scientific knowledge. He said that the bible wasn’t to be taken literally, but should be interpreted in the light of other knowledge. If the evidence had been convincing, it’s likely that the church would have reinterpreted the book of scripture to maintain consistency with the book of nature.

    Now, having said all that, I am not an apologist for the church (they behave, frequently, appallingly and in highly antiscience ways). However, I think the Galileo affair is a lot more complex than it’s made out to be by modern authors who are seeking to adduce evidence for the “religion vs science wars”.

    I think the conflict is a lot more nuanced than that. There’s no doubt in my mind that there is a conflict, and that the bulk of that conflict arises when religious people make claims about the natural world which cannot be substantiated or supported by science. The Catholic church tends not to make literalist claims of Biblical interpretation, and has been happy with the concept of evolution for some time, reinterpreting their scripture (this might be termed “higher theology”). However, the trend at the moment is for fundamentalists to interpret their scripture without higher theology, and therefore interpret in a strict literalist sense.

    That’s not to say Catholics are without flaw: their process for establishing the veracity of claims of miracle is deeply flawed, and in conflict with the principles laid down by Augustine, and their exploitation of vulnerable groups and immoral leadership on so many issues do not require further elucidation. Nonetheless, I think the Galileo affair may not be the best example of their relationship with science (in the broadest sense of the term).

    In conclusion: I think it’s more complicated than its often made out to be and that simplifying it doesn’t benefit, least of all anyone who is making a claim on truth.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 8, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      I’m reading the post and this comment, and they are both interesting stories and neither in conflict with facts as far as I can see.

      anyone who is making a claim on truth.

      That is their loss, since all we _can_ know is facts. Having a truth value implies consistency, usually within an axiomatic system.

      History is really “his story” in a general sense, people model complex processes but each model is contingent (dependent on included facts for example) and not necessarily consistent.

      I don’t think it is meaningful to making other claims on history than verifiable facts (several sources combined with good models, i.e. “UFO observations” isn’t UFOs et cetera), and that it can be nice storytelling.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted June 8, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        “to making” – to be making

  12. Posted June 7, 2010 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    That was such a Mythbusters moment! Myth: CONFIRMED

  13. Posted June 7, 2010 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Thomas Aquinas was a pivotal figure who still has an effect on western thought and the Catholic Church to this day, including sexual mores. He believed that any sexual activity that wasn’t directly related to procreation was wrong. He even extended this to any sexual position other than missionary. All other positions he considered to be wrong because he believed they reduced the chances of conception.

    Too bad he didn’t get a second opinion from science on any of that stuff…

    • Brian
      Posted June 7, 2010 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

      The whole transubstantiation gibberish is Aristotelian/Thomistic doggerel. Substance, essense, Jeebus in a cracker.

  14. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted June 7, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    In 1971, David Scott and James Irwin spent a week on the surface of the moon, on the Apollo 15 mission.

    Wikipedia sez
    “Commander David Scott and Lunar Module Pilot James Irwin spent three days on the Moon and a total of 18½ hours outside the spacecraft on lunar extra-vehicular activity.”

    More precisely, the lunar surface time is listed as 2 days, 18 hours, 54 minutes and 53 seconds.

    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted June 7, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      Mea culpa, and for once Wikipedia was right (it might not be now!). Over-hasty reading of the details from the NASA website (which I assume is true):
      Launched: 26 July 1971 UT 13:34:00
      Landed on Moon: 30 July 1971 UT 22:16:29
      Landing Site: Hadley Rille/Apennines (26.13 N, 3.63 E)
      Returned to Earth: 7 August 1971 UT 20:45:53

  15. Posted June 7, 2010 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    A few notes: First of all, there was already a lot of questioning of Aristotle. Aristotle’s views of motion had already been replaced by the notion of “impetus” before Galileo. And other rules for gravity had also been proposed. For example, Oresme did work in the 1300s discussing flaws with Aristotle. Shortly before Galileo, Benedetti proposed a very similar albeit incorrect law for falling bodies.

    The Church’s reaction to Galileo had much more to do with the fact that the heliocentric claims contradicted Biblical verses than the actual issues with Aristotle (although that was there too but it wasn’t as major). This was also in the middle of the Counter-Reformation. Incidentally, there’s actually some evidence that suggests that the Protestants were reacting against the new physics and astronomy before the Catholics and that the Catholics ironically picked it up from their opponents.

    Kuhn’s book “The Copernican Revolution” gives an excellent history of these and related ideas.

  16. Posted June 7, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    The situation between the Church and Galileo was more complex than made out here. And to say the Church was “obsessed” with the heliocentric hypothesis is going a bit too far.

    In 1616, the Church ordered Galileo not to hold or advocate (neither “hold nor defend”) the heliocentric hypothesis, but it did not forbid him from discussing it.

    And in fact, his 1632 “Dialogue,” the book that got him into trouble, was authorized and requested by both the Inquisition and the pope. And Pope Urban VIII, a friend of Galileo, specifically asked that his own views be included in the book. So the Church was actively supporting discussion of the hypothesis, but did not want anyone advocating it.

    Galileo got into trouble because the “Dialogue” went too far in the direction of advocacy, as opposed to a neutral discussion. And perhaps more damning was that Galileo represented the pope’s views through the words of a character named “Simplicio,” a fool. Arguably, Galileo got into trouble not so much for advocating a heliocentric solar system, although that was the formal charge, but rather more so for making fun of the pope.

    Also complicating the picture was the Protestant Reformation. The threat of Protestantism got the Church’s back up and it was generally unwilling to concede any doctrinal matter for fear it would encourage the Protestants.

  17. Mike from Ottawa
    Posted June 7, 2010 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    “It wasn’t until stellar aberration was observed in 1725 that the theory was conclusively shown to be correct.”

    It is stellar parallax you are thinking of and that wasn’t definitively observed until Bessel did it in 1838. Until then, the lack of observable parallax of the stars given the known length of the baseline of the Earth’s orbit (or the Sun’s if one clung to geocentrism) was a mainstay of geocentrism. It wasn’t realized just how very far away the stars are.

    Stellar aberration is related to the story of stellar parallax in that stellar aberration introduced error into the fine observation needed to detect stellar parallax.

    There is much good stuff on the early days of science at the blog The Renaissance Mathematicus (http://thonyc.wordpress.com/) including on Galileo.

    • Posted June 7, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      Mike, not exactly. The person you are replying to is correct. Stellar aberration by itself is evidence for a moving Earth full-stop. It also becomes a problem that needs to be corrected for if one wants to work out stellar parallax.

      Stellar aberration was discovered by Bradley and Molyneux in the early 1700s.

  18. Revjimbob
    Posted June 14, 2010 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    There is something about the way the atronauts move and the bulk of their suits and equipment that makes them look like little kids skipping gleefully around.

  19. Ron
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I have admired Galileo and considered him to be one of the greatest men to ever live since I read his biography as a teenager. What a perfect tribute to him to have austronauts on the moon, centuries after his death, once and for all, demonstrating that he was right about objects falling in a vacuum. This now becomes my favorite moment in the history of science.


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