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Charles F. Richter

Charles F. Richter

Charles F. Richter (1900-1985) was one of the developers of the Richter Scale which is used to measure the magnitude of earthquakes.

Charles F. Richter is remembered every time an earthquake happens. With German-born seismologist Beno Gutenberg, Richter developed the scale that bears his name and measures the magnitude of earthquakes. Richter was a pioneer in seismological research at a time when data on the size and location of earthquakes were scarce. He authored two textbooks that are still used as references in the field and are regarded by many scientists as his greatest contribution, exceeding the more popular Richter scale. Devoted to his work all his life, Richter at one time had a seismograph installed in his living room, and he welcomed queries about earthquakes at all hours.

Charles Francis Richter was born on April 26, 1900, on a farm near Hamilton, Ohio, north of Cincinnati. His parents were divorced when he was very young. He grew up with his maternal grandfather, who moved the family to Los Angeles in 1909. Richter went to a preparatory school associated with the University of Southern California, where he spent his freshman year in college. He then transferred to Stanford University, where he earned an A.B. degree in physics in 1920.

Richter received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1928. That same year he married Lillian Brand of Los Angeles, a creative writing teacher. Robert A. Millikan, a Nobel Prizewinning physicist and president of Caltech, had already offered Richter a job at the newly established Seismological Laboratory in Pasadena, then managed by the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Thus Richter started applying his physics background to the study of the earth.

As a young research assistant, Richter made his name early when he began a decades-long collaboration with Beno Gutenberg, who was then the director of the laboratory. In the early 1930s the pair were one of several groups of scientists around the world who were trying to establish a standard way to measure and compare earthquakes. The seismological laboratory at Caltech was planning to issue regular reports on southern California earthquakes, so the Gutenberg-Richter study was especially important. They needed to be able to catalog several hundred quakes a year with an objective and reliable scale.

At the time, the only way to rate shocks was a scale developed in 1902 by the Italian priest and geologist Giuseppe Mercalli. The Mercalli scale classified earthquakes from 1 to 12, depending on how buildings and people responded to the tremor. A shock that set chandeliers swinging might rate as a 1 or 2 on this scale, while one that destroyed huge buildings and created panic in a crowded city might count as a 10. The obvious problem with the Mercalli scale was that it relied on subjective measures of how well a building had been constructed and how used to these sorts of crises the population was. The Mercalli scale also made it difficult to rate earthquakes that happened in remote, sparsely populated areas.

The scale developed by Richter and Gutenberg, which became known by Richter's name only, was instead an absolute measure of an earthquake's intensity. Richter used a seismograph—an instrument generally consisting of a constantly unwinding roll of paper, anchored to a fixed place, and a pendulum or magnet suspended with a marking device above the roll—to record actual earth motion during an earthquake. The scale takes into account the instrument's distance from the epicenter, or the point on the ground that is directly above the earthquake's origin. Richter chose to use the term "magnitude" to describe an earthquake's strength because of his early interest in astronomy; stargazers use the word to describe the brightness of stars. Gutenberg suggested that the scale be logarithmic, so that a quake of magnitude 7 would be ten times stronger than a 6, a hundred times stronger than a 5, and a thousand times stronger than a 4. (The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that shook San Francisco was magnitude 7.1.)

The Richter scale was published in 1935 and immediately became the standard measure of earthquake intensity. Richter did not seem concerned that Gutenberg's name was not included at first; but in later years, after Gutenberg was already dead, Richter began to insist that his colleague be recognized for expanding the scale to apply to earthquakes all over the globe, not just in southern California. Since 1935, several other magnitude scales have been developed. Depending on what data is available, different ones are used, but all are popularly known by Richter's name.

For several decades Richter and Gutenberg worked together to monitor seismic activity around the world. In the late 1930s they applied their scale to deep earthquakes, ones that originate more than 185 miles below the ground, which rank particularly high on the Richter scale—8 or greater. In 1941 they published a textbook, Seismicity of the Earth, which in its revised edition became a standard reference book in the field. They worked on locating the epicenters of all the major earthquakes and classifying them into geographical groups. All his life, however, Richter warned that seismological records only reflect what people have measured in populated areas and are not a true representative sample of what shocks have actually occurred. He long remained skeptical of some scientists' claims that they could predict earthquakes.

Richter remained at Caltech for his entire career, except for a visit to the University of Tokyo from 1959 to 1960 as a Fulbright scholar. He became involved in promoting good earthquake building codes, while at the same time discouraging the overestimation of the dangers of an earthquake in a populated area like Los Angeles. He pointed out that statistics reveal freeway driving to be much more dangerous than living in an earthquake zone. He often lectured on how loss of life and property damage were largely avoidable during an earthquake, with proper training and building codes—he opposed building anything higher than thirty stories, for example. In the early 1960s, the city of Los Angeles listened to Richter and began to remove extraneous, but potentially dangerous, ornaments and cornices from its buildings. Los Angeles suffered a major quake in February of 1971, and city officials credited Richter with saving many lives. Richter was also instrumental in establishing the Southern California Seismic Array, a network of instruments that has helped scientists track the origin and intensity of earthquakes, as well as map their frequency much more accurately. His diligent study resulted in what has been called one of the most accurate and complete catalogs of earthquake activity, the Caltech catalog of California earthquakes.

Later in his career, Richter would recall several major earthquakes. The 1933 Long Beach earthquake was one, which he felt while working late at Caltech one night. That quake caused the death of 120 people in the then sparsely populated southern California town; it cost the Depression-era equivalent of $150 million in damages. Nobel Prizewinning physicist Albert Einstein was in town for a seminar when the earthquake struck, according to a March 8, 1981 story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Einstein and a colleague of Richter's were crossing the campus at the time of the quake, so engrossed in discussion that they were oblivious to the swaying trees. Richter also remembered the three great quakes that struck in 1906, when he was a six-year-old on the Ohio farm. That year, San Francisco suffered an 8.3 quake, Colombia and Ecuador had an 8.9, and Chile had an 8.6.

In 1958 Richter published his text Elementary Seismology, which was derived from the lectures he faithfully taught to Caltech undergraduates as well as decades of earthquake study. Many scientists consider this textbook to be Richter's greatest contribution, since he never published many scientific papers in professional journals. Elementary Seismology contained descriptions of major historical earthquakes, tables and charts, and subjects ranging from the nature of earthquake motion to earthquake insurance and building construction. Richter's colleagues maintained that he put everything he knew into it. The book was used in many countries.

In the 1960s, Richter had a seismograph installed in his living room so that he could monitor quakes at any time. He draped the seismographic records—long rolls of paper covered with squiggly lines—over the backs of the living room chairs. (His wife, Richter maintained, considered the seismograph a conversation piece.) He would answer press queries at any hour of the night and never seemed tired of talking about his work. Sometimes he grew obsessive about speaking to the press; when a tremor happened during Caltech working hours, Richter made sure he would be the one answering calls—he put the lab's phone in his lap.

Richter devoted his entire life to seismology. He even learned Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, and German, as well as a little Japanese, in order to read scientific papers in their original languages. His dedication to his work was complete; in fact, he became enraged at any slight on it. For instance, at his retirement party from Caltech in 1970, some laboratory researchers sang a clever parody about the Richter scale. Richter was furious at the implication that his work could be considered a joke. During his lifetime he enjoyed a good deal of public and professional recognition, including membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a stint as president of the Seismological Society of America, but he was never elected to the National Academy of Sciences. After his retirement Richter helped start a seismic consulting firm that evaluated buildings for the government, for public utilities such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and for private businesses.

Richter enjoyed listening to classical music, reading science fiction, and watching the television series Star Trek. One of his great pleasures, ever since he grew up walking in the southern California mountains, was taking long solitary hikes. He preferred to camp by himself, far away from other people. But being alone had its drawbacks; once, he encountered a curious brown bear, which he chased away by loudly singing a raunchy song. After his marriage Richter continued his solo hikes, particularly at Christmas, when he and his wife would go their separate ways for a while. At these times Lillian indulged in her interest in foreign travel. The couple had no children. A little-known fact about them, according to Richter's obituary in the Los Angeles Times, is that they were nudists. Lillian died in 1972. Richter died in Pasadena on September 30, 1985, of congestive heart failure.

Further Reading

Current Biography, H. W. Wilson, 1975, November, 1985.

Los Angeles Times, October 1, 1985.

Los Angeles Times Home Magazine, May 11, 1980.

Pasadena Star-News, May 13, 1991.

San Francisco Chronicle, March 8, 1981. □

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Richter, Charles F. (1900-1985)

Richter, Charles F. (1900-1985)

American seismologist

Charles F. Richter is remembered every time an earthquake happens. With German-born seismologist Beno Gutenberg, Richter developed the scale that bears his name and measures the magnitude of earthquakes. Richter was a pioneer in seismological research at a time when data on the size and location of earthquakes were scarce. He authored two textbooks that are still used as references in the field and are regarded by many scientists as his greatest contribution, exceeding the more popular Richter scale . Devoted to his work all his life, Richter at one time had a seismograph installed in his living room, and he welcomed queries about earthquakes at all hours.

Charles Francis Richter was born on a farm near Hamilton, Ohio, north of Cincinnati. His parents were divorced when he was very young. He grew up with his maternal grandfather, who moved the family to Los Angeles in 1909. Richter went to a preparatory school associated with the University of Southern California, where he spent his freshman year in college. He then transferred to Stanford University, where he earned an A.B. degree in physics in 1920.

Richter received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) in 1928. That same year he married Lillian Brand of Los Angeles, a creative writing teacher. Robert A. Millikan, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and president of Cal Tech, had already offered Richter a job at the newly established Seismological Laboratory in Pasadena, then managed by the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Thus Richter started applying his physics background to the study of the earth.

As a young research assistant, Richter made his name early when he began a decades-long collaboration with Beno Gutenberg, who was then the director of the laboratory. In the early 1930s, the pair was one of several groups of scientists around the world who were trying to establish a standard way to measure and compare earthquakes. The seismological laboratory at Cal Tech was planning to issue regular reports on southern California earthquakes, so the Gutenberg-Richter study was especially important. They needed to be able to catalog several hundred quakes a year with an objective and reliable scale.

At the time, the only way to rate shocks was a scale developed in 1902 by the Italian priest and geologist Giuseppe Mercalli. The Mercalli scale classified earthquakes from 1 to 12, depending on how buildings and people responded to the tremor. A shock that set chandeliers swinging might rate as a 1 or 2 on this scale, while one that destroyed huge buildings and created panic in a crowded city might count as a 10. The obvious problem with the Mercalli scale was that it relied on subjective measures of how well a building had been constructed and how used to these sorts of crises the population was. The Mercalli scale also made it difficult to rate earthquakes that happened in remote, sparsely populated areas.

The scale developed by Richter and Gutenberg, which became known by Richter's name only, was instead an absolute measure of an earthquake's intensity. Richter used a seismographan instrument generally consisting of a constantly unwinding roll of paper, anchored to a fixed place, and a pendulum or magnet suspended with a marking device above the rollto record actual earth motion during an earthquake. The scale takes into account the instrument's distance from the epicenter, or the point on the ground that is directly

above the earthquake's origin. Richter chose to use the term "magnitude" to describe an earthquake's strength because of his early interest in astronomy ; stargazers use the word to describe the brightness of stars. Gutenberg suggested that the scale be logarithmic, so that a quake of magnitude 7 would be ten times stronger than a 6, a hundred times stronger than a 5, and a thousand times stronger than a 4. (The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that shook San Francisco was magnitude 7.1.)

The Richter scale was published in 1935, and immediately became the standard measure of earthquake intensity. Richter did not seem concerned that Gutenberg's name was not included at first; but in later years, after Gutenberg was already dead, Richter began to insist that his colleague be recognized for expanding the scale to apply to earthquakes all over the globe, not just in southern California. Since 1935, several other magnitude scales have been developed. Depending on what data is available, different ones are used, but all are popularly known by Richter's name.

For several decades, Richter and Gutenberg worked together to monitor seismic activity around the world. In the late 1930s they applied their scale to deep earthquakes, ones that originate more than 185 miles below the ground, which rank particularly high on the Richter scale8 or greater. In 1941, they published a textbook, Seismicity of the Earth, which in its revised edition became a standard reference book in the field. They worked on locating the epicenters of all the major earthquakes and classifying them into geographical groups. All his life, however, Richter warned that seismological records only reflect what people have measured in populated areas and are not a true representative sample of what shocks have actually occurred. He long remained skeptical of some scientists' claims that they could predict earthquakes.

Richter remained at Cal Tech for his entire career, except for a visit to the University of Tokyo from 1959 to 1960 as a Fulbright scholar. He became involved in promoting good earthquake building codes, while at the same time discouraging the overestimation of the dangers of an earthquake in a populated area like Los Angeles. He pointed out that statistics reveal freeway driving to be much more dangerous than living in an earthquake zone. He often lectured on how loss of life and property damage were largely avoidable during an earthquake, with proper training and building codeshe opposed building anything higher than thirty stories, for example. In the early 1960s, the city of Los Angeles listened to Richter and began to remove extraneous, but potentially dangerous, ornaments and cornices from its buildings. Los Angeles suffered a major quake in February of 1971, and city officials credited Richter with saving many lives. Richter was also instrumental in establishing the Southern California Seismic Array, a network of instruments that has helped scientists track the origin and intensity of earthquakes, as well as map their frequency much more accurately. His diligent study resulted in what has been called one of the most accurate and complete catalogs of earthquake activity, the Cal Tech catalog of California earthquakes.

Later in his career, Richter would recall several major earthquakes. The 1933 Long Beach earthquake was one, which he felt while working late at Cal Tech one night. That quake caused the death of 120 people in the then sparsely populated southern California town; it cost the Depression-era equivalent of $150 million in damages. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein was in town for a seminar when the earthquake struck, according to a March 8, 1981 story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Einstein and a colleague of Richter's were crossing the campus at the time of the quake, so engrossed in discussion that they were oblivious to the swaying trees. Richter also remembered the three great quakes that struck in 1906, when he was a six-year-old on the Ohio farm. That year, San Francisco suffered an 8.3 quake, Colombia and Ecuador had an 8.9, and Chile had an 8.6.

In 1958, Richter published his text Elementary Seismology, which was derived from the lectures he faithfully taught to Cal Tech undergraduates as well as decades of earthquake study. Many scientists consider this textbook to be Richter's greatest contribution, since he never published many scientific papers in professional journals. Elementary Seismology contained descriptions of major historical earthquakes, tables and charts, and subjects ranging from the nature of earthquake motion to earthquake insurance and building construction. Richter's colleagues maintained that he put everything he knew into it. The book was used in many countries.

In the 1960s, Richter had a seismograph installed in his living room so that he could monitor quakes at any time. He draped the seismographic recordslong rolls of paper covered with squiggly linesover the backs of the living room chairs. (His wife, Richter maintained, considered the seismograph a conversation piece.) He would answer press queries at any hour of the night and never seemed tired of talking about his work. Sometimes he grew obsessive about speaking to the press; when a tremor happened during Cal Tech working hours, Richter made sure he would be the one answering callshe put the lab's phone in his lap.

Richter devoted his entire life to seismology . He even learned Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, and German, as well as a little Japanese, in order to read scientific papers in their original languages. His dedication to his work was complete; in fact, he became enraged at any slight on it. For instance, at his retirement party from Cal Tech in 1970, some laboratory researchers sang a clever parody about the Richter scale. Richter was furious at the implication that his work could be considered a joke. During his lifetime he enjoyed a good deal of public and professional recognition, including membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a stint as president of the Seismological Society of America, but he was never elected to the National Academy of Sciences. After his retirement, Richter helped start a seismic consulting firm that evaluated buildings for the government, for public utilities such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and for private businesses.

Richter enjoyed listening to classical music, reading science fiction, and watching the television series Star Trek. One of his great pleasures, ever since he grew up walking in the southern California mountains, was taking long solitary hikes. Richter died in Pasadena at the age of 85.

See also Faults and fractures; Folds

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Richter, Charles Francis

RICHTER, CHARLES FRANCIS

(b. Hamilton, Ohio, 26 April 1900; d. Altadena, California, 30 September 1985), geology, seismology.

Carl Richter was one of the key figures in developing the new field of seismology in the first half of the twentieth century, most notably through inventing the magnitude scale used to describe the size of earthquakes, and in investigating the seismicity of the world, especially of southern California.

Early Years In 1909 Richter’s family (his mother Lillian Richter, his maternal grandfather, and an elder sister) moved to Los Angeles, in southern California, where he was to spend his whole career. Richter later credited his grandfather with being one of the major influences on his upbringing. He began college at the age of sixteen; he began his undergraduate work at the University of Southern California and at Stanford University in chemistry, but changed to physics because of his clumsiness with equipment. After graduation he suffered a breakdown, but, remaining interested in science, later enrolled in the graduate physics program at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he obtained a PhD in theoretical physics, on the quantum theory of electron spin, in 1928. Seeking a job that would keep him around Caltech, in 1927 he became an assistant in H. O. Wood’s program to map earthquakes in southern California, which had been set up by the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1921. In 1927 the earthquake program became a joint one with Caltech, and was housed in the new Seismological Laboratory a few miles from the campus; Richter, along with Wood and instrumentalist Hugo Benioff, became one of the small group who worked there to build the first network of seismometers in the United States specifically designed to record local earthquakes.

Seismological Survey A major reason for setting up this network was to detect and locate smaller earthquakes in Southern California, in the expectation that the locations of small earthquakes would be a clue to larger ones. For the resulting list of earthquakes not to be misleading, though, it had to somehow indicate if earthquakes were small or large. Earthquake size had usually been described using the intensity of shaking felt by people, an approach that would not work for earthquakes too small to be felt and those in desert areas or offshore. Seeking a method that would use the instrumental data, Richter took the technique of plotting ground motion against distance, presented by the Japanese seismologist Kiyoo Wadati in 1931, and transformed it to produce the motion at a standard distance from measurements made throughout the network; the logarithm of this standardized value gave the relative sizes of earthquakes, a number which Richter, at Wood’s suggestion, called the earthquake magnitude—in part by analogy with the usage of this word in astronomy. Earthquakes were assigned magnitudes starting with the first list produced, in 1932, though the procedure was not published until 1935.

In 1930 Caltech hired Beno Gutenberg, then perhaps the world’s leading seismologist, whose academic advancement in Germany had probably been hindered by his Jewish background. One important reason for Caltech to hire Gutenberg was to provide expertise in using the data being collected by the network for more purely local study. Gutenberg and Richter established a working relationship that was to extend over more than two decades. While at the start they were employed by different institutions, this ended in 1937 when the seismological program was taken over by Caltech and Richter was put on the faculty. For more than ten years after Gutenberg’s arrival, they pursued the combined problem of improving the estimates of travel times for different seismic waves, and the location of earthquakes throughout the world, particularly deep shocks. They were aided in this by the new and more sensitive seismometers developed by Benioff. A result of this effort was a complete set of travel times for different waves, useful for understanding the structure of Earth.

During this time they also extended the magnitude scale from the local area of Southern California to the whole world, first for shallow earthquakes and later (in work by Gutenberg) for deep ones. This extension was put to use in creating the first global catalog of earthquakes in which the sizes and locations were determined entirely from instrumental data collected worldwide, and so was not biased by population distribution. The first version of

AP IMAGES.

this (The Seismicity of the Earth) was published in 1941; subsequent extensions appeared in different editions to 1954. These catalogs showed the concentration of large shocks into relatively narrow belts around Earth, and the even tighter concentration of deep earthquakes into a few limited regions: both results were an important element in later discussions leading to plate tectonics. Another result of this analysis, and of the listing of earthquakes in Southern California, was the Gutenberg-Richter relation between magnitude and rate of earthquake occurrence. This relationship is that as the magnitude of earthquakes decreases by one unit, the number of earthquakes increases by a factor of about ten: small earthquakes are much more numerous than large.

Throughout his career Richter remained active in the regular work of analyzing seismic records from local and distant earthquakes, with a commitment to maintaining the quality of the record of local shocks. This remained true even through World War II, when, after a short period of assisting with weapons work, he returned to seismology, providing advice on seismic hazard and current earthquakes to the U.S. authorities. As it happened, following the war seismic activity in Southern California increased, and Richter studied several larger earthquakes that occurred between 1946 and 1952. His care for the continuity of recording also kept him in California with few interruptions, the longest being a one-year sabbatical in Japan in 1959–1960.

Public Spokesman After Wood’s early retirement in 1934, Richter had become the usual Seismological Laboratory spokesman to the press about current seismic activity, a role he enjoyed. This led him, especially in the late 1950s and the 1960s, to become a persistent advocate for improved seismic safety in California: he spoke to many public organizations, and made efforts to get civil defense authorities to treat natural disasters as part of their remit. This interest in seismic hazard also led to research on how to best describe relative risk. After his retirement in 1970 Richter founded, with other Caltech faculty, a consulting firm to advise on the seismic safety of engineering projects. His encounters with the press also made him a well-known debunker of unwarranted earthquake predictions.

During the 1950s Richter also wrote Elementary Seismology, which—despite its title—is a complete description of all aspects of the study of earthquakes, their causes, effects, and geography, as well as an outline of the development of seismology over time. The book reflects both Richter’s wide knowledge of the subject, and his preference for keeping inferences close to observations and avoiding undue speculation; it helped to train a generation of American seismologists. Richter’s primary professional affiliation was with the Seismological Society of America, of which he was president in 1959; in 1976 he received the Society’s Harry Fielding Reid Medal.

While a man of considerable charm and some humor, Richter was often awkward socially: he could be blunt, thin-skinned, and somewhat mercurial. He was devoted to his science, even installing a seismic recorder in his living room; but he also privately maintained wider interests, notably in botany, and wrote fiction and poetry, largely unpublished. He enjoyed the outdoors both alone and with his wife Lillian, whom he married in 1928, and who predeceased him in 1972; they had no children.

Though the magnitude scale was invented to solve a purely local problem, its use expanded far beyond that. As a description of earthquake size it began to be used in newspaper reports in the late 1940s, and has become well embedded in popular consciousness, along with the term

Richter scale. In seismology it also became a standard, or rather multiple standards, as different definitions were developed for different kinds of earthquakes; attempting to make these consistent with Richter’s original definition, determining the interrelations between different scales, and finding the reasons for the differences, have all been ongoing research activities.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

WORKS BY RICHTER

“An Instrumental Earthquake Magnitude Scale.” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 25 (1935): 1–32.

With Beno Gutenberg. “Richter Frequency of Earthquakes in California.” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 34 (1944): 185–188.

———. Seismicity of the Earth and Associated Phenomena, 2nd edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954. Elementary Seismology. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1958.

OTHER SOURCES

Allen, Clarence. “Charles F. Richter: A Personal Tribute.” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 77 (1987): 2232–2233.

Geschwind, Carl-Henry. California Earthquakes: Science, Risk, and the Politics of Hazard Mitigation. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Goodstein, Judith R. “Waves in the Earth: Seismology Comes to Southern California.” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 14 (1984): 201–230.

Hough, Susan Elizabeth. Richter’s Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Duncan Carr Agnew

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Richter, Charles Francis

Richter, Charles Francis (1900–1985) An American physicist and geologist, Richter is best known for his logarithmic scale of earthquake magnitudes. First proposed in 1927, the scale was later refined with the assistance of Gutenberg, with whom Richter also co-operated in a study of the world's greatest earthquakes, and other seismological work. See RICHTER SCALE.

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