Can We Stop Talking About Carl Sagan?

Update #3 [Up at the top, so that hopefully people read it.] Does the title of this post make you angry? Well, you’re not alone. I continue to hear from many people who think I am downright stupid for daring to ask this question. Seeing all the backlash, I’ll be first to admit that I wish I had titled it something less provocative (even though it didn’t feel all that provocative at the time.) All I want to suggest is that we hold up some other examples of good science communicators, I don’t want to, or think that we can, erase the past. Sagan has a deity-like position for some people, and I didn’t do a very good job of explaining why that makes me feel so bad sometimes. I wanted to offer a different point of view. As was said to me on twitter, we should recognize Sagan the way we recognize Da Vinci, Einstein, Galileo – as greats. That doesn’t mean we should let that stall our ability to move forward and try to make new great things, with new great people.

Update #4 You know, the moment I had to ask my Mom (because my computer was giving me trouble and I couldn’t log into my own site – go figure) to log in to this site to respond to a comment to say that I don’t think Sagan hated women kind of made me want to give up completely. But I’ve read two thoughtful responses to my post, and I realized that the main thing I’m not saying is why I felt the need to write this in the first place. When we hold up Sagan again and again as the greatest there ever was, when we take his quotes and put them on pretty pictures that go viral, when the TV special continues to live online, when we talk again and again about how this one person inspired humanity and made people see that science is human – and all of it makes me feel nothing, I can’t help but think that perhaps I’m less than human. I joked with a friend yesterday that perhaps I’m just dead inside, but it isn’t really a joke to me. If Sagan represents all that is good, and I don’t understand it, then I can’t be good. So, if you want to know where this post was written, it was written from a place of fear and self doubt.

I am hopelessly optimistic about life to the point of near desperation to find the good in everything. So I thought, well, if I feel this way, other people must too. I warped that thinking into the blanket statements that caused so much of the trouble in this post. I know better than to publish without letting something sit so I can rethink it, and I broke my own rule, and made a mistake here. Some people have reached out to me to say they shared my feelings. So, to those people, I hope knowing you aren’t alone in not feeling so inspired makes you feel better.

My problem isn’t really with Sagan himself, and I didn’t do a good job of explaining that I take issue with the culture surrounding Sagan, with the way he is idolized as a one-and-only, with the vehemence of some of his fans. People have told me he would also promote women and diversity, which is a good thing. I do still think that other examples are needed not just to show a different approach to science communication, but to show different people to encourage other people that they can do this, even if they don’t see themselves in Sagan.

To everyone who challenged me to refine my thinking and more clearly state my point of view, you are everything I love about the Internet and I thank you for keeping your calm demeanor and engaging with me in a productive way. To everyone who called me stupid, self-absorbed, uneducated, and told me to learn my place, to learn some “respect, baby” well, I don’t particularly know what to say to you, but I hope you feel better too. To those who accused me of having no appreciation for the past, disrespecting my parents (what? – I felt so bad about that I even asked them, and they laughed at me) and wanting a world of nothing but listicles and Honey-Boo-Boo and instant gratification – that wasn’t the point I tried to make, which I admit to failing to make the first time, and I hope you’ll think again about what I’m actually asking us to do.

If what the world really needs are more and more Sagans, I guess I may be out of a job. But, I continue to think that I don’t really want to try to be anybody else, that’s the whole problem with idol worship, and I just want to try to make my own good things. Quite frankly, I don’t think we even CAN have another Sagan – it’s a very different world. I hope that in holding up other people as examples we can drive home the idea that there is more than one way to do something, more than one way to reach people, more than one way to do something good.

I also want to say that to those that called me out on categorizing Sagan based on his appearance, you’re right that I hate when it gets done to me, and as frustrating as I can get about it, it is still not right to categorize someone else that way. It wasn’t a productive way to have this conversation. If I offended you, but you kept quiet about it, you have my sincere apology too. The body of this post is largely intact, all of my flaws and all, so you can read the original below along with the other updates. I would also encourage you to read the response posts here and here.

It feels like I’m committing an act of science communication sacrilege here, but I have a confession to make: Carl Sagan means absolutely nothing to me. No more than any other person from my parents 1970’s yearbooks that could rock the turtle neck/blazer combo with the best of them. There, my secret is out.

Credit: NASA JPL via Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: NASA JPL via Wikimedia Commons.

[This paragraph is edited] I’m not saying I don’t like Sagan – I’m saying Sagan has zero influence on me or what I do. To me, Sagan is a stereotypical scientist who made some show that a lot of people really liked more than 30 years ago. That show – Cosmos: A Personal Voyage -was on air nearly a decade before I was even born. The reason I bring up my own age is because I’m as old, if not older, than the prime audience for science communication. I think anyone can learn to appreciate science at any age in life, but we stand the best chance at convincing people that science is something they can understand (and even do themselves) early in life when their beliefs are not so entrenched.

So then why, WHY as science communicators do we keep going around and around among ourselves about how Sagan – who is so far outside my life experience, let alone that of people younger than me – was the greatest science communicator of all time? We keep talking about who will (or won’t) be the next Carl Sagan but I promise you, no high school kid cares about Carl Sagan let alone whether or not science communicators think he was great. [Please see Updates #1 and #2 at the bottom of this post, to address the flaw in this blanket statement.] We spend so much time and energy talking about a guy that isn’t  relevant anymore. The topics of space, the natural world, and how to communicate wonder are totally relevant to the public and to the science writing community. But, this one guy? Nope.

[This paragraph is edited] It isn’t just the age thing. I recently read Alone in a Room Full of Science Writers by Apoorva Mandavilli about the National Association of Science Writers annual meeting, and how there was a distinct lack of minorities, let alone minority women. She said:

“You can never overestimate how empowering it is to see someone who looks like you—only older and more successful. That, much more than well-meaning advice and encouragement, tells you that you can make it.”

That idea stuck with me. Role models are a great thing, and I get that Sagan inspired people to become scientists themselves. But, if we want to seriously address issues of diversity in science and science communication holding up the stereotypical scientist over and over again isn’t doing anyone any favors. I’m not trying to belittle anyone’s inspiration for pursuing science, let alone belittle Sagan himself. I respect the work Sagan did as a scientist and communicator. I respect that at the time he brought science into the mainstream in a way that hadn’t been done before. But, we need new things.

We need things that fit a modern era, things that will supplement the nerdy white dude stereotype (I mean, I generally like nerdy white dudes, you don’t have to leave, we just need other people too.) I believe that we can do better than lamenting some guy in a turtleneck as if nothing good will ever happen again. We can focus on diversity – showing men and women, of different ethnicities and backgrounds that science isn’t only for nerds.

The answer isn’t as simple as rebooting Cosmos, as FOX is doing, and sticking Neil deGrasse Tyson in front of the camera. While Tyson is far more relevant, and yes is a minority, we still need to get women, other minorities, and young people doing all kinds of science out in public view. If we want diversity we need to show people that people just like them can, and do, like science. We need everybody.

Credit ESA/Hubble & NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Credit ESA/Hubble & NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Now, I realize that instinctively we want to defend our childhood heroes. You may be sitting at your computer thinking, “but, but, you just don’t GET it, you don’t understand what a big impact Sagan had.” You are right, and that is 100% my point. I’m an admittedly nerdy, white, science communicator. If I don’t care about Sagan, do you honestly think the general public does? Science, particularly space, yes. Sagan, nope.

I sincerely hope the reboot of Cosmos starring Tyson does well, because science programming on a major television network in primetime is a good thing. I have  faith that the science will be sound, and we are in dire need of an upgrade from Mermaids and Megalodons so I think it’s great. That said, I still think it is a complete waste of our efforts to keep going on and on about WHO will be the next Sagan when we should really be talking about HOW we’re going to engage with a diverse audience about science and WHAT platforms and tools will we use to be effective. To me, those are far more productive conversations to have.

The science isn’t going to stop being interesting, it isn’t going to stop being relevant – but if we can’t push our professional conversations and aspirations past Sagan, we will stop being relevant.

Bonus: I didn’t know where to include this link, but here is Hope Jahren’s Ode to Carl Sagan. You should probably read it.

Update: Well, this is easily the most talked about post I’ve ever written. Lots of feedback here and on twitter. Most prominent are the voices saying but I love Sagan, he did such good things. Rock on, I’m not saying that he didn’t. Keep your fondness for him. There are young people who find Sagan inspiring. Blanket statements like the ones I made here don’t do justice to the fact that really, what inspires you is deeply personal. To each, their own. I took a hard line stance because it feels important to me for people to feel comfortable admitting that Sagan doesn’t inspire them if he doesn’t. Again, to each their own.  So, I nod to those young people who are inspired by Sagan, you’re right that I don’t speak for you, nor do I have a right to do so. But I also nod to everyone who said this made them feel better because other role models for science and science communication are something that many of us (if not all) would benefit from. Some people feel othered by not being into Sagan – if that makes any sense. But, I’m not trying to other anyone here either. I shouldn’t dismiss the significance of what Cosmos achieved, and should have included that we can still learn from what has been successful – even if I am seriously cautious about merely trying to replicate the past without pushing further, to do better.

Update #2: I wish I could change the title of this post to “Can We Stop Talking About Carl Sagan All of the Time” but it is what it is. I’m still getting comments about how wrong I am, because Sagan means so much to so many people, so to clarify: I took a very line in the sand approach in this post. I’ve talked to a lot of people since advocating for a middle of the road approach, the “we need everybody” that I mentioned. Keep Sagan, but find a way to promote others too. His popularity speaks to the fact that his work gets through to a lot of people. My blanket statements contradict that in a way that is confusing. I should have been more careful, and written about how he doesn’t get through to some people and we do need new things to get through to the people his work doesn’t reach. I don’t want us to throw away the good work that Sagan did and never talk about it ever again as if we can’t still get value from it. Keep what worked, appreciate the value added, but I still think shifting our focus to new things is beneficial.

34 thoughts on “Can We Stop Talking About Carl Sagan?

  1. When people are asking “who is the next Carl Sagan” – I don’t think they always mean, “When will we have another white guy with a funny voice and a hit 13 part PBS series?” Frankly I think the notion of a hit 13-part PBS series as the model of science communication is FAR MORE backwards-looking than the notion that we need the right old white guy to host it. I think people are often asking the very question you are asking in a slightly different way – Who will be the person who figures out the combination of medium and message to capture the zeitgeist and create something that is as successful in todays’ world as Cosmos was in the mid 70s?

  2. I am not sure I understand the point of this post. Are you implying that Carl Sagan is no longer relevant because he was white? Then we could say the same thing about countless scientists and science communicators throughout history, many of who *are* very much relevant because of their message. Saying that Carl Sagan is not relevant because he was white and part of a white old boys’ club is like saying that Einstein is not relevant because he was white and part of a white old boys’ club.

    Tyson is surely relevant today, and yes, we of course need to get more women and minorities involved in science communication, but I still fail to understand how any of this makes Carl Sagan less relevant.

  3. As an old white dude who is at least as old as your parents, I couldn’t agree more. Sagan is gone and there is too much hero worship. I watched his shows and read his books back then. Been there, done that, want more data. (I found my copy of Cosmos when unpacking boxes just this year.)
    I’m excited to follow young science writers on Twitter and through blogs and books. It’s a great time for those of us who follow them. I don’t really know what gender or age they are when I am reading, but I assume most are young white guys. I would love suggestions on others.
    My age group has had our time and it is time for you young people to go for it. Thanks for the post.

  4. I don’t agree with this post at all; I’m Indian and I read Cosmos and Contact while growing up. I’ve never watched the show, and honestly, I don’t particularly want to. It never mattered to me that Carl Sagan was white and dead before I was born; he was a scientist, he made science look like a lot of fun and he made me and fellow Cosmos-readers want to do science. That’s my idea of a great role model. Other people may become more relevant, but he’ll never stop being relevant.

  5. I *am* of the age that remembers Sagan well and yet I agree wholeheartedly with this post. It’s not so much that Sagan’s white and male and so no longer relevant; it’s more that he was a mid-70s media communicator and so no longer relevant.

    Like it or not, media personalities—which is where Sagan’s main influence was, even more than any scientific credibility he had (so comparisons with Einstein are moot)—do go stale, and formerly groundbreaking TV shows can and do date. As far as “Cosmos” is concerned, 30 years later, it’s totally understandable that people are saying “isn’t there anyone more modern than this?” and I don’t think you have to hang up your science nerd credentials to agree with that.

  6. I think the point of this post is to indicate that Carl Sagan does not necessarily represent the kind of communicator who can be found in today\’s science communication milieu. However I think he is definitely still \”relevant\” in so far as the things he said about skepticism, about wonder, about space exploration are still part of our national dialogue. I also don\’t think that a scientist or science communicator becomes irrelevant because bright teenage science students haven\’t heard of him; it just means that we have not done a very good job of teaching them about him. The majority of science students also haven\’t heard of Thomas Bayes, yet he is as relevant as ever.

    To me the main point of this post seems to be that women and minorities are now quite relevant in science communication, not that Sagan is irrelevant.

    1. But what is “relevance” in media communication? Again, what Sagan is known for is not the same thing as true scientific discoveries. (And I’m not sure that knowing who Thomas Bayes is, as opposed to actually knowing how to use Bayesian concepts is necessarily relevant to most people. But that’s a separate discussion.)

      Sure, the level of science communication doesn’t change much, since the messages are largely the same—but critically, they do need to be updated from time to time as science modernizes. I can’t see myself sitting through any 30-year-old science show and expect to get the most relevant theories—why should anyone younger even care? How can you talk meaningfully about science nowadays without at least mentioning the role of the internet?

      Sagan is significant from a historical overview of science communication, but unless you’re specifically teaching communication studies from a historical context, what’s the point of gushing about him now?

  7. YES. Thank you so much for eloquently writing what has been on my mind! I feel in some ways the same about women in science who have passed on – I do think it is important that we remember them and their contributions to science, but I’d really like to hear more about women in science who are doing awesome things today that will shape my future! I also think that maybe we can encourage women to go into science by giving them real working examples of the cool things that are being accomplished by women in the STEM fields, rather than holding up women from a different place and time, which I would say is the same feelings I have on Sagan/science communicators. Anyways, excellent post!

  8. Yes, that’s the question. I think Sagan is relevant simply because his ideas are relevant (the comparison with Einstein was regarding this relevance of ideas). That does not mean others aren’t. Our tent is big enough to accommodate both Sagan and Tyson, Curie and Randall. I don’t see the problem here.

  9. I strongly disagree with the idea that Carl Sagan is no longer relevant, and that no high school kid today gives a f^%& about what he has to say. Sagan has been immortalized in the fantastic way all of our great thinkers are — through his words and his ideas. The power of art (written or any other kind) is that it transcends the limits of time and of the lowly artist himself; as a science communicator, you have to believe enough in the power and influence of your words to know they’ll outlive you. Sagan’s “pale blue dot” monologue is so popular and so glorified because that idea, that human beings are so small in this vast, lonely universe, and that they need to cherish and connect with each other, is a timeless one. It’s as relevant as all our great works of literature (written by long-dead authors)! High schools kids give a f%^$ about John Lennon and Catcher in the Rye. Why do you think their age (or race for that matter) precludes them from relating to Carl Sagan?

    Anyway, if you don’t care much about Carl Sagan, that’s fine too. And certainly, the climate of the science world is evolving, and we hope getting better and becoming more inclusive and diverse. We don’t want to slow progress by listening to old records endlessly, and refusing to hear anything new; but do we really need to discourage anyone from reading and idolizing Carl Sagan, for fear they won’t be living in the present world of science? My thought is that we should only encourage people to be interested and enthusiastic in this field, and we should refrain from shutting any doors. I don’t find Sagan threatening at all. As a young woman in science, I’ve never felt disconnected from this older, white, male — I related to him as a human being and lover-of-science. In my experience, Carl Sagan has been a bit of a “gateway drug” to this greater universe of fantastic, modern science writing, and I think he deserves to be viewed as a bit of a canon for that alone.

  10. Carl was one of my heroes, but I don’t expect young folks to look back and make sense of his fame in today’s terms.

    One thing that only oldsters like me seem to realize is that Carl Sagan became famous for being a regular guest on The Tonight Show long before Cosmos was produced. There were no other astronomers chatting it up with Johnny and Ed every few months.

    With mega-terabytes of science on demand today, our time isn’t going to produce another Carl Sagan. He is a product of his time, and I feel that he has tremendous historical significance. He was a scientist but he was a regular guy, for those days. Scientists were supposed to be unsmiling old men who spoke way over our heads. He put a human face on astronomy.

    Having lived through those times, I don’t feel it’s realistic to expect him to have fought for diversity in the way someone would today. Carl’s focus – his fight, was the proliferation of nuclear weapons; he was arrested twice at anti-nuclear protests for climbing a fence at the Nevada Test Site.

    I would even argue that some measure of the diversity in scientists today is due to the diversity of the television audience he, and others like him, inspired as kids.

    Who is the next Martin Luther King? Who is the next FDR? Silly questions! Like Sagan, they are products of their time, and I think it’s ludicrous to talk about the “next” Carl Sagan.

    He was a great man. Let’s leave him alone.

  11. I’m spanish, I think Sagan and Asimov where great (they still are for me): Michio Kaku has not the levels of nerdiness or minority representativity you need? To be a divulgator is easier today than ever… go women, go minorities, go white nerds… sigh!!

  12. Maybe you should learn more about carl sagan´s work before sticking with just one thing (the tv show) and rip it to pieces. I have more than a dozen books from Mr Sagan that tell me you don´t know what you´re talking about.

    There´s so many other fony “science gurus” to pick on but I´m guessing critizing Mr Sagan brings more traffic to your web.

    What´s it going to be next, Mr Feynman is an idiot because he talks weird?

    No more reading your blog for me, what a shame.

    1. She didn’t rip Sagan at all. She simply said that he and his work weren’t an influence on her. Yes, she exaggerated when she said no HS student cared about him but I would bet that it is a small percentage that do care.

      Her larger point stands. We need to expand the list of science educators to show kids the wonders of the world and the universe. Yes, that means more minorities and women. It also means people from all of the sciences. Not everyone gets a rush from astronomy. Some groove to biology, physics, meterology, chemistry, etc.

  13. We can stop talking about Carl Sagan when critical thinking is celebrated, and not met with ridicule and distrust. When crackpot ideas like ‘Intelligent Design’ cannot find purchase in international discourse. When people finally abandon the correlation=causation idiocy that has made victims of everyone who has had a vaccination or saw a jet’s contrail or ate GMO food. When the idea of a differing viewpoint excites rather than aggravates. How can you say we have learned all we can from this man while Honey Boo Boo plays on The Learning Channel?

  14. I get where you are coming from, and I agree, as I am pretty young to have much experience of his work. I do respect his work, and somewhere way back I did see his shows and thought they were pretty great.
    I think that the “next Carl Sagan”, in order to connect with so many people so deeply, will need to take a hint from him though. They need to communicate the passion and wonder they feel for their subject honestly and without holding back, in order to inspire them. This is what made Sagan such a great popularizer of science, and it is what works time and time again. The new forms of science media, with jump cuts, high speed sound bites and clutter, does not and cannot do what Sagan did with his “Cosmos” work. The IFLS-style snippet sharing is not doing science much of a service at all, as it is not engaging people in the story of science as it is practiced.
    Anyway, thanks for this post, it gives me some good food for thought!

  15. Instead of knocking down Carl Sagan, why don’t you toss some kudos towards Ann Druyan. Oh wait, you don’t know who that is? Why don’t you research that before talking about Cosmos again.

  16. Can we stop acting like poor Jews from Brooklyn are WASP overlords? Sagan was part of an ethnic minority, and his mother grew up basically homeless.

  17. I think that all of this is completely irrelevant for the reason that still today, Carl Sagan’s works spark interest in people who wouldn’t otherwise give a shit about science. His works are still relevant today, still read, and no one has and is doing as much of a good job as he is, dead. That’s why we’re not going to stop talking about Carl Sagan. He can still reach more people through his very unique and empathetic pen than anyone else. Carl might be dead, but he lives on indeed.

  18. I love Millennials. Their stupidity is only matched by their innate cluelessness. To the Millennial, everything is a product. A self-contained product that is only relevant in its time. Sagan? He’s now a tired, boring old white guy with bad fashion and a voice that doesn’t click, so sayeth the Millennial.

    Here’s some more for you:

    Can we please stop playing Mozart? He’s sooooooooo lame!
    Can we please stop reading Shakespeare? I mean, WTF?
    Einstein? E = boring squared. We’ve moved on you know!
    Can we please stop with these Broadway plays? Hello? Movies exist!

    There you go. Add your own. Or pretend you exist in a time vacuum whereby lame denigration of people of the past somehow inflates your own relevance. Newsflash: It doesn’t.

  19. I might also add that Sagan would have never written trash like this, telling people to forget the teachers and brilliant minds of the past. Yet another example of the Millennial hubris that pervades today.

  20. I’m glad to see you clarified some statements that I can’t help but feel wasn’t very well thought out. While I agree that no one should be deified, writing one of the giants upon whose shoulders others stand just because he’s dead and his television program is dated was a rather immature position to take. I frankly don’t feel Sagan is given that kind of blanket worship anyway. Sure he’s talked about a lot, but so are lots of other significant figures from all of history, including science. Sometimes people get that kind of respect for a reason. You really should read some of his writings. The Varieties of Scientific Experience is an excellent start.

    You are certainly entitled to your opinions, and your statement that we need more diversity at the forefront on not only science communication, but science itself. That correct assertion only makes your dismissive attitude towards Sagan for being part of the “old white boys club” only more disturbing. Were you serious with that statement? How is that different than dismissing Marie Curie because she’s a woman? That was a very irresponsible statement that you should immediately retract.

    If you want to say Sagan had no influence on you and you think that applies to others as well, by all means do so. I’m sure you are one hundred percent right about that. If you want to say we need more diversity in science, please do. I know you are one hundred percent right on that one. The thing is, I’m really sure Sagan would have agreed with both of those statements, so please don’t imply(whether or not it was intentional) that he was part of some misogynistic good ol boys club. It’s disrespectful and only hurts in the effort to promote diversity and fairness.

  21. First let me apologize for some of the typo’s, like missing the “off” in “writing off one of the giants…”. The window I’m typing in is really small.

    Now let me clarify before I’m misunderstood. Is a shameful misogynistic attitude present today(and then)? Of course. But to paint someone with that brush just because of the time they were in,or more troubling, the color of their skin and gender is just plain wrong. You may not have meant to do that, but I’ve already read discussions about your post that are making this leap. You really should correct that. To wash over it by saying some statements you made were confusing isn’t sufficient.

    While I take issue with your opinion on the worth of people who have come before you, that’s your opinion and certainly fair grounds for discussion. Dismissing someone for being an “old white guy” is shameful.

  22. You are right painting all men with the same brush is wrong. I never intended to claim Sagan was misogynistic. As you suggested, I completely removed reference to the old boys club.

  23. Thanks for responding. I hope you didn’t feel like I was attacking you, as that wasn’t my intent. I do admit I got a little worked up over this though. It’ s just I have a lot respect for Sagan and what he stood for while alive. You are absolutely right that he doesn’t deserve to be deified and that we need more people from all walks of life to be represented in science. I also admit that this is my first time to your blog, though I now plan on returning. This will be my last comment on this post. I’m sure you’re ready to be done with it.

  24. I think you are missing the point of why Carl Sagan is such a central figure. It isn’t so much who he was as what he was. He was a real scientist (worked on a lot of the early Mars missions, for example) who managed to engage the public. His books and, of course, Cosmos, were read/watched by people who don’t typically read/watch programs about science. I’m somewhat older than you (based on your bio on this site, 7 or 8 years), so I’m too young to have followed Cosmos or read his books during his prime years, but I knew who Sagan was and recognized him when he came on TV. And he did all this without resorting to gimmicks (such as incorporating pseudoscience).
    Since he died, there hasn’t been a true scientist who has become a household name, a face to go with science, because of his or her ability to communicate. Frankly, I think the re-making of Cosmos will do nothing to change that…getting someone to basically imitate Sagan isn’t what we need. What we need is someone who can fill that role, even if they do it in a very different way. Sagan was great, but going back to what I said at the beginning of this comment, what we really need isn’t someone who comes across as Sagan-esque, we need someone (or better yet several people) who can fill his societal role.

  25. Maybe I’m an old fogey and out of touch with today’s thought patterns. But in my student days at Cornell in the 60s (yes, Virginia, that decade DID exist), the young untenured Astronomy Department prof who moderated the weekly guest lecture series was Carl Sagan. I snuck in every week to attend and became an unabashed fan of his and his work with the university’s radio telescope. I followed his guest shots on Johnny Carson and later his PBS series. He was a wonderful introduction to astronomy in general and my own thesis work in particular as well as to the intellectual life afforded by a truly superior university.

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