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Isaac Newton (Anglais) Broché – 7 juin 2004

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Chapter 1

What Imployment Is He Fit For?

Medieval, in some disrepair, the Woolsthorpe farmhouse nestled into a hill near the River Witham. With its short front door and shuttered windows, its working kitchen, and its bare floors of ash and linden laid on reeds, it had belonged to Newton's forebears for just twenty years. In back stood apple trees. Sheep grazed for acres around.

Isaac was born in a small room at the top of the stairs. By the terms of feudal law this house was a manor and the fatherless boy was its lord, with seigniorial authority over a handful of tenant farmers in nearby cottages. He could not trace his ancestry back past his grandfather, Robert, who lay buried in the churchyard nearly a mile to the east. Still, the boy expected to live managing the farm in the place of the father he had never known. His mother, Hannah Ayscough, had come from gentlefolk. Her brother, the Reverend William Ayscough, studied at Cambridge University on his way to joining the Anglican clergy; now he occupied a village rectory two miles away. When Isaac was three years old and his widowed mother near thirty, she accepted a marriage offer from another nearby rector, Barnabas Smith, a wealthy man twice her age. Smith wanted a wife, not a stepson; under the negotiated terms of their marriage Hannah abandoned Isaac in the Woolsthorpe house, leaving him to his grandmother's care.

War flared in the countryside all through his youth. The decade-long Great Rebellion began in the year of his birth: Parliamentarians fighting Royalists, Puritans recoiling from the idolatry they saw in the Church of England. Motley, mercenary armies skirmished throughout the Midlands. Pikemen and musketeers sometimes passed through the fields near Woolsthorpe. Bands of men plundered farms for supplies. England was at war with itself and also, increasingly, aware of itself-its nationhood, its specialness. Divided as it was, convulsed over ecclesiastical forms and beliefs, the nation carried out a true revolution. The triumphant Puritans rejected absolutism and denied the divine right of the monarchy. In 1649, soon after Isaac turned six, Charles Stuart, the king, was beheaded at the wall of his palace.

This rustic country covered a thousandth of the world's landmass, cut off from the main continent since the warming of the planet and the melting of polar ice 13,000 years before. Plundering, waterborne tribes had settled on its coasts in waves and diffused into its downs and valleys, where they aggregated in villages. What they knew or believed about nature depended in part on the uses of technology. They had learned to employ the power of water and wind to crush, grind, and polish. The furnace, the forge, and the mill had taken their place in an economy that thereby grew more specialized and hierarchical. People in England, as in many human communities, made metal-kettles of copper and brass, rods and nails of iron. They made glass. These crafts and materials were prerequisites now to a great leap in knowledge. Other prerequisites were lenses, paper and ink, mechanical clocks, numeric systems capable of denoting indefinitely small fractions, and postal services spanning hundreds of miles.

By the time of Newton's birth, one great city had formed, with about 400,000 people; no other town was even a tenth as large. England was still a country of villages and farms, its seasons ordered by the Christian calendar and the rhythms of agriculture: lambing and calving, haymaking and harvest. Years of harvest failure had brought widespread starvation. Roving laborers and vagrants made up much of the population. But a class of artisans and merchants was coming into its own: traders, shopkeepers, apothecaries, glaziers, carpenters, and surveyors, all developing a practical, mechanical view of knowledge. They used numbers and made tools. The nucleus of a manufacturing economy was taking shape.

When Isaac was old enough, he walked to the village dame school, where he learned to read and studied the Bible and chanted arithmetic tables. He was small for his age, lonely and abandoned. Sometimes he wished his stepfather dead, and his mother, too: in a rage he threatened to burn their house down over them. Sometimes he wished himself dead and knew the wish for a sin. On bright days sunlight crept along the wall. Darkness as well as light seemed to fall from the window- or was it from the eye? No one knew. The sun projected slant edges, a dynamic echo of the window frame in light and shadow, sometimes sharp and sometimes blurred, expressing a three-dimensional geometry of intersecting planes. The particulars were hard to visualize, though the sun was the most regular of heavenly objects, the one whose cycles already defined the measures of time. Isaac scratched crude geometric figures, circles with arcs inscribed, and hammered wooden pegs into the walls and the ground to measure time exactly, to the nearest quarter-hour. He cut sun-dials into stone and charted the shadows cast by their gnomons. This meant seeing time as akin to space, duration as length, the length of an arc. He measured small distances with strings and made a translation between inches and minutes of an hour. He had to revise this translation methodically as the seasons changed. Across the day the sun rose and fell; across the year its position in the sky shifted slightly against the fixed stars and traced a slowly twisting figure eight, a figure invisible except to the mind's eye. Isaac grew conscious of this pattern long before he understood it as the product of two oddities, the earth's elliptical orbit and a tilt in its axis.

At Woolsthorpe anyone who cared to know the hour consulted Isaac's dials. "O God! Methinks it were a happy life," said Shakespeare's Henry VI, "to carve out dials quaintly, point by point, thereby to see the minutes how they run." Sun-dials-shadow-clocks-still told most people the time, though at some churches the hour could be read from mechanical clocks. At night the stars turned in the blue vault of the sky; the moon waxed and waned and traced its own path, much like the sun's, yet not exactly-these great globes, ruling the seasons, lighting the day and night, connected as if by invisible cords. Sun-dials embodied practical knowledge that had been refined over millennia. With cruder sun-dials, the hours were unequal and varied with the seasons. Better versions achieved precision and encouraged an altered sense of time itself: not just as a recurring cycle, or a mystical quality influencing events, but as duration, measurable, a dimension. Still, no one could perfect or even understand sun-dials until all the shifting pieces of a puzzle had been assembled: the shadows, the rhythms, the orbits of planets, the special geometry of the ellipse, the attraction of matter by matter. It was all one problem.

When Isaac was ten, in 1653, Barnabas Smith died, and Hannah returned to Woolsthorpe, bringing three new children with her. She sent Isaac off to school, eight miles up the Great North Road, to Grantham, a market town of a few hundred families-now a garrison town, too. Grantham had two inns, a church, a guild hall, an apothecary, and two mills for grinding corn and malt. Eight miles was too far to walk each day; Isaac boarded with the apothecary, William Clarke, on High Street. The boy slept in the garret and left signs of his presence, carving his name into the boards and drawing in charcoal on the walls: birds and beasts, men and ships, and pure abstract circles and triangles.

At the Kings School, one room, with strict Puritan discipline, Henry Stokes, schoolmaster, taught eighty boys Latin, theology, and some Greek and Hebrew. In most English schools that would have been all, but Stokes added some practical arithmetic for his prospective farmers: mostly about measurement of areas and shapes, algorithms for surveying, marking fields by the chain, calculating acres (though the acre still varied from one county to the next, or according to the land's richness). He offered a bit more than a farmer would need: how to inscribe regular polygons in a circle and compute the length of each side, as Archimedes had done to estimate pi. Isaac scratched Archimedes' diagrams in the wall. He entered the lowest form at the age of twelve, lonely, anxious, and competitive. He fought with other boys in the churchyard; sometimes noses were bloodied. He filled a Latin exercise book with unselfconscious phrases, some copied, others invented, a grim stream of thought: A little fellow; My poore help; Hee is paile; There is no room for me to sit; In the top of the house-In the bottom of hell; What imployment is he fit for? What is hee good for? He despaired. I will make an end. I cannot but weepe. I know not what to doe.

Barely sixty lifetimes had passed since people began to record knowledge as symbols on stone or parchment. England's first paper mill opened at the end of the sixteenth century, on the Deptford River. Paper was prized, and the written word played a small part in daily life. Most of what people thought remained unrecorded; most of what they recorded was hidden or lost. Yet to some it seemed a time of information surfeit. "I hear new news every day," wrote the vicar Robert Burton, attuned as he was-virtually living in the Bodleian Library at Oxford-to the transmission and storage of data:

those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, . . . and such like, which these tempestuous times afford. . . . New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion &c."

Burton was attempting to assemble all previous knowledge into a single rambling, discursive, encyclopedic book of his own. He made no apology for his resolute plagiarism; or, rather, he apologized this way: "A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a Giant may see farther than a Giant himself." He tried to make sense of rare volumes from abroad, which proposed fantastic and contradictory schemes of the universe-from Tycho, Galileo, Kepler, and Copernicus. He tried to reconcile them with ancient wisdom.

Did the earth move? Copernicus had revived that notion, "not as a truth, but a supposition." Several others agreed. "For if the Earth be the Center of the World, stand still, as most received opinion is," and the celestial spheres revolve around it, then the heavens must move with implausible speed. This followed from measurements of the distance of sun and stars. Burton borrowed (and mangled) some arithmetic. "A man could not ride so much ground, going 40 miles a day, in 2,904 years, as the Firmament goes in 24 hours; or so much in 203 years, as the said Firmament in one minute; which seems incredible." People were looking at the stars through spyglasses; Burton himself had seen Jupiter through a glass eight feet long and agreed with Galileo that this wanderer had its own moons.

He was forced to consider issues of shifting viewpoint, though there was no ready language for expressing such conundrums: "If a man's eye were in the Firmament, he should not at all discern that great annual motion of the earth, but it would still appear an indivisible point." If a man's eye could be so far away, why not a man? Imaginations ran free. "If the earth move, it is a Planet, & shines to them in the Moon, & to the other Planetary Inhabitants, as the Moon and they to us upon the earth."

We may likewise insert . . . there be infinite Worlds, and infinite earths or systems, in infinite æther, . . . and so, by consequence, there are infinite habitable worlds: what hinders? . . . It is a difficult knot to untie.

Especially difficult because so many different authorities threw forth so many hypotheses: our modern divines, those heathen philosophers, heretics, schismatics, the Church of Rome. "Our latter Mathematicians have rolled all the stones that may be stirred: and . . . fabricated new systems of the World, out of their own Daedalean heads." Many races of men have studied the face of the sky throughout history, Burton said, and now the day was coming when God would reveal its hidden mysteries. Tempestuous times, indeed.

But new books every day did not find their way to rural Lincolnshire. Newton's stepfather, Smith, had owned books, on Christian subjects. The apothecary Clarke also owned books. Smith even possessed blank paper, in a large commonplace book that he had kept for forty years. He painstakingly numbered the pages, inscribed theological headings atop the first few, and otherwise left it almost entirely empty. Some time after his death this trove of paper came into Isaac's possession. Before that in Grantham with two and a half pence his mother had given him, Isaac was able to buy a tiny notebook, sewn sheets bound in vellum. He asserted his ownership with an inscription: Isacus Newton hunc librum possidet. Over many months he filled the pages with meticulous script, the letters and numerals often less than one-sixteenth of an inch high. He began at both ends and worked toward the middle. Mainly he copied a book of secrets and magic printed in London several years earlier: John Bate's Mysteryes of Nature and Art, a scrap book, rambling and yet encyclopedic in its intent.

He copied instructions on drawing. "Let the thing which you intend to draw stand before you, so the light be not hindered from falling upon it." "If you express the sunn make it riseing or setting behind some hill; but never express the moon or starrs but up on necessity." He copied recipes for making colors and inks and salves and powders and waters. "A sea colour. Take privet berries when the sun entreth into Libra, about the 13th of September, dry them in the sunn; then bruise them & steep them." Colors fascinated him. He catalogued several dozen, finely and pragmatically distinguished: purple, crimson, green, another green, a light green, russet, a brown blue, "colours for naked pictures," "colours for dead corpes," charcoal black and seacoal black. He copied techniques for melting metal (in a shell), catching birds ("set black wine for them to drink where they come"), engraving on a flint, making pearls of chalk. --Ce texte fait référence à une édition épuisée ou non disponible de ce titre.

Revue de presse

"The biography of choice. . . . Newton the man emerges from the shadows."--The New York Times Book Review

“Succinct, elegant. . . . A sharp, beautifully written introduction to the man." --The Wall Street Journal

“A masterpiece of brevity and concentration. Isaac Newton sees its angular subject in the round, presenting him as scientist and magician, believer and heretic, monster and man. . . . It will surely stand as the definitive study for a very long time to come. Fortunate Newton!” --John Banville, The Guardian

“Gleick [is] a clever tour guide to the minds of great geniuses. . . . Isaac Newton sheds new light on the difficult personality of a deeply enigmatic figure.” --Seattle Post-Intellignceer

“Elegant, jewel-like…he does not waste a word… Gleick has given us the man and his mind in their full crazyness.” --The New York Times

“A compelling page-turner. . . . Gleick [is] a clever tour guide to the minds of great geniuses. Isaac Newton sheds new light on the difficult personality of a deeply enigmatic figure.” --Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Beautifully flesh[es] out the alchemical dialectic, its balancing act between the spiritual and the gross.” —The Boston Globe

“An elegantly written, insightful work that brings Newton to life and does him justice. . . . Gleick proves to be not only a sound explicator of Newton's science but also a capable literary stylist, whose understated empathy with his subject lets us almost see through Newton's eyes.” —Los Angeles Times

“The biography of choice for the interested layman. . . . [Gleick] makes this multifaceted life remarkably accessible.” --The New York Times Book Review

“For the casual reader with a serious interest in Newton’s life and work, I recommend Gleick’s biography as an excellent place to start. It has three important virtues. It is accurate, it is readable, and it is short…. Gleick has gone back to the original notebooks and brought [Newton] to life.” —Freeman Dyson, The New York Review of Books

“The best short life of science’s most perplexing figure.” —New Scientist

“Written with enormous enthusiasm and verve and in a style that is often closer to poetry than prose. [Gleick] explains the fundamentals with clarity and grace. His ease with the science is the key to the book’s delight.” —The Economist

“[Gleick is] one of the best science writers of our time. . . . He has exhumed from mountains of historical documents and letters a compelling portrait of a man who held the cards of his genius and near madness close to his chest. Gleick’s book [is] hard to put down.” —Toronto Globe and Mail

“Brilliant. . . . The great scientist is brought into sharp focus and made more accessible. Highly recommended.” —The Tucson Citizen

“Marvellously rich, elegant and poetic. . . . [Gleick’s] great talent is the ability to unravel complex ideas without talking down. Books on Newton abound, but Gleick’s fresh, intimate and beautifully composed account succeeds where many fail, in eloquently dramatizing the strange power of his subject’s vision.” --The Times (London)

“Gleick . . . has transformed mainstream academic research into an exciting story. Gleick has done a marvelous job of recreating intellectual life in Britain around the end of the 17th century. He excels at translating esoteric discussions into clear, simple explanations that make sense to modern people.” —Science

“James Gleick . . . makes the most of his extraordinary material, providing us with a deftly crafted vision of the great mathematician as a creator, and victim, of his age. . . . [Isaac Newton] is a perfect antidote to the many vast, bloated scientific biographies that currently flood the market--and also acts a superb starting point for anyone interested in the life of one of the world's few, undisputed geniuses.” --The Observer

“Gleick . . . brings to bear on Newton’s life and thought the same clarity of understanding and expression that brought order to chaos in his first volume [Chaos: Making a New Science].” —The Daily Herald

“Moving . . . [Gleick’s] biography is perhaps the most accessible to date. He is an elegant writer, brisk without being shallow, excellent on the essence of the work, and revealing in his account of Newton’s dealings with the times.” —Financial Times

“You can’t get much more entertaining than Isaac Newton–as described by James Gleick, that is.” —The San Diego Union-Tribune

“Huge in scope and profound in depth. . . . The extent of Newton’s genius is revealed in breathtaking detail. . . . A remarkable and challenging work and does full justice to its subject.” --Yorkshire Evening Post --Ce texte fait référence à une édition épuisée ou non disponible de ce titre.

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Gives an excellent and readable perspective on the scientific perception of the world before Newton and the astonishing impact he had on this.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 étoiles sur 5 156 commentaires
1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 An Engaging Biography of a Phenomenal Intellect, Preemminent Scientist,Thinker, Alchemist, and Theologian 18 avril 2017
Par Joseph A. Schrock - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
I found the reading of James Gleick’s “Isaac Newton” a quite congenial read. It was revealed more clearly to me, in reading this account of Newton’s life and accomplishments, than had ever previously been the case that Isaac Newton was among the very most towering of all human intellects to ever walk on Earth. However, I was a bit disappointed to read on page 154 that John Flamsteed was greatly desirous of Newton’s approbation, but that “…before long they hated each other.” After all, I’d wished to believe that Newton was mostly modest, somewhat humble, and gentle in his conduct toward others. To realize that he was inclined to react with hatred toward those who disagreed with him is, to me, a disappointment.
One thing that comes to my mind in reading a work about one of the most brilliant scientists of all time, Isaac Newton, is that if belief in a Divine Creator is such an absurdity as some modern scientists, philosophers, and skeptics of all shades declare (read Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”), then why would such a majestically brilliant thinker as Newton see no logical incongruence between his monumental scientific and mathematical insights and his conviction that there is a God? After all, it seems that Newton wrote more and spent more time studying about religion than he did about mathematics, astronomy, and physics all combined. How could such a brilliant mind be so deluded – if it is the case that Dawkins’ declarations hold water?
As for Gleick’s book, I’ll give it 5 stars. I found it a rewarding biography of a “5-star” intellect.
1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Comets, Not Apples 9 août 2008
Par Thomas J. Burns - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
Several versions of Isaac Newton's life have evolved in the three centuries since his death in 1727. They are the products of admirers, detractors, philosophers, scientist, and poets. Some have the virtue of being partially true. Indeed, Isaac Newton was brilliant, restless, creative, vindictive, and proud. That his image today is so disjointed comes as no surprise. James Gleick attempts to sort the wheat from the chaff, but his work goes far beyond that, to a splendid essay of Newton in his time.

The 17th century was a curious time to be alive in England. Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his brilliant study of the Reformation, identifies Newton as the pivotal character in the swing from theology to science as the defining key of existence. But the old cosmologies were dying slow, painful deaths, while the new ones were generally infantile, utopian, or speculative. Even Galileo hesitated at first to turn his telescope to the skies, for fear of offending the divine, and when he finally caught glimpse of Saturn, the imperfections of his optics led him to announce "a planet with handles." [Newton himself had to disguise his mathematics of infinity under the cloak of annuity interest projections to maintain proper theological etiquette at Cambridge.] The new science, such as it was, required as much faith as the old religion. A few souls like Kepler understood that there might be logic at the root, but his mathematics were daunting.

What makes Newton's life so interesting is the intellectual and philosophical journey that took him from the age of Galileo into the age of Einstein. He attended Cambridge in the aftermath of Oliver Cromwell but his Protestantism was not entirely appropriate as he harbored closet doubts about the Holy Trinity, finding no scriptural basis for it. His theology evolved from Aristotle as much as from anyone. He respected Aristotle's concept of First Cause, and he had enough innate oppositional defiance to approach his studies with a rigorous scientific method in the manner of The Philosopher, chips fall where they will.

Newton excelled in mathematics, physics, and mechanics, and his interests were broad enough that he brought a philosopher's eye to these various disciplines. In a sense he began his life's work while still a college student, looking for a unifying factor or factors to all the known sciences and disciplines of his day. This was a gargantuan task, and its audacity took Newton to the virtual doorstep of the best of medieval theology. His quest became an obsession, and for several solitary years it led him down the dark alley of alchemy. Alchemy was highly suspect; its practitioners were considered either heretics for seeking divine secrets, or outright charlatans looking to create gold. Newton, however, was attempting to find a bridge between the stasis of matter and the observable flux of actual life.

What seemed to bring Newton out of his cave was the appearance of a spectacular comet in 1681. A young astronomer named Halley, an early admirer of Newton's work, postulated that comets might be cyclic objects with elliptic trajectories. Halley's thesis on the trajectory of comets--rather easily substantiated even in his day by visual observation and Kepler's foundational math--was a physical puzzlement in an age when behavior of heavenly bodies was something of a psychological/religious given. Not even the telescope had shaken that. Why, then, would a comet make what amounts to a 270 degree change in trajectory as it passed the sun?

Gleick traces with broad sweeps Newton's intense pursuit of an answer, which led to the basic laws of physics we call Newtonian. Gleick's economy is appreciated: Newton's paper trail is extensive and exhaustive; one key to his success was exactitude. [The economist John Maynard Keynes led an extensive recent effort to recover and catalogue Newton's body of work.] Although his publications in his day had modest circulation due to the highly technical nature--Halley, in fact, funded some of the publishing--there were two polarities permeating his theories that captured public attention and attracted considerable criticism in his time: his dependence upon the invisible, and the extensiveness of his claims.

There is irony in the fact that Newton's passion for scientific verifiable method allowed room for what his enemies would deride as invisible forces. Gravity is the most obvious example, though here the difficulty was mathematical semantics: just as most of us labor with the material reality of e=mc(2), so too in Newton's day the mathematics and physics underlying gravitational force escaped even many professionals of his time. But in other areas of his work Newton claimed a certainty that was at best hypothetical and at times almost magical. So confident was he in the power of computation and observation that he promoted his ideas about atoms and light transmission, for example, as Gospel. The debate over the nature and transmission of light was an intense one during Newton's working years. Newton himself made major contributions in his work with prisms and improvements on reflecting telescopes. But his hubris and scientific acclaim led him into an alchemy of speculation which later scientists corrected.

On the other hand, Newton was attacked by poets and artists for redefining the world in the cold jargon of scientific certitude. He was accused of stripping the human experience of mystery. Even some scientists worried that Newton had left nothing for them to do. In some cases these criticisms are the fruit of Newton's own exhaustive claims, and like many famous men, he did suffer in translation and adulation. Newton's personality--including his lifelong love of declarative sentences--did not facilitate clarification or negotiation. Having solved to his own satisfaction the mysteries of the universe, Newton turned to an even greater challenge: the English economy. In 1696 he was appointed Warden and eventually Master of the Mint where he essentially restored credibility to the coin of the realm. Little wonder Keynes would protect his memory.
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Great Insight into a Complex Man 15 décembre 2016
Par tcboyd - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Format Kindle Achat vérifié
What a pleasure it was to learn so much about a man who we all associate with "being hit on the head by a falling apple", leading to the "invention" of the the calculus. The book was so well researched and documented, that it revealed a very complex man who was most likely never fully understood by anyone.

I recently visited London, and having read the book, it made standing at Newton's tomb in Westminster Abby so much more meaningful. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about this complex and historically significant man.
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3.0 étoiles sur 5 Thin book, wanted more 17 mars 2013
Par Idaho - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
I have read Chaos, Genius, Faster, and Information from this author. I saw this listed in his other books, and ordered it.
Boy. It is thin. Could there really be so little to say about Newton? Apparently so. The book is good, some new facts were learned, but I was hoping for more. Feynman's biography (Genius) was superb, Faster was light, and Information went on a bit longer than I needed. But all three were heftier. If you want a small book for a child, then this one will do.
1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Left me wanting more 9 juin 2014
Par BeenThere - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
As a life science instructor, now retired, with a very broad interest in all science I have taught elements of science history as relates to microbiology, anatomy and physiology, and biochemistry. The apparent birth of modern science in the 1600's has always fascinated me. Halley, Hooke, Huygens, Newton, Flamsteed, Boyle, Cassini, Hevelius, Wren, Leeuwenhoek etal. It seems improbable that these great men and others were contemporaries. Now that I have more time I thought to initially explore the more casual literature re this topic. Newton certainly is on my list. This book was an enjoyable and quick read. Given I didn't expect great depth I was satisfied but I definitely now want a lot more. I am a little sorry to have not looked for a more in depth biography as a first read.
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