Black Holes, Tides, and Curved Spacetime: Understanding Gravity

Course No. 1231
Professor Benjamin Schumacher, Ph.D.
Kenyon College
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Course No. 1231
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Course Overview

The force of gravity rules the universe. It governs our everyday lives on Earth and it controls the motions of the heavens above. Yet it is one of the least understood of all the forces of nature. To endeavor to understand this fundamental force is to experience anew something as simple as getting out of bed, throwing a ball, or diving into a pool; and it gives deep insight into the central organizing principle of the cosmos.

Consider these crucial aspects of gravity:

  • Gravity governs the rising and falling of tides—not only tides in the ocean, but tides in the solid rock of Earth itself.
  • Gravity molds the sun and planets into spheres, and it holds celestial objects in their orbits.
  • Gravity ignites the nuclear fires inside each star, then fights a billion-year battle to determine its fate.
  • Gravity collects stars into galaxies and causes galaxies to collide in intricate mergers that we can model with supercomputers.

Without gravity, everything would dissolve into a gas of randomly interacting atoms. It is the only truly universal force, affecting not just matter but also light, time, and, at a basic level, all information. The study of gravity helped spark the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century, and it continues to be at the forefront of physics today, as scientists rely on gravity to investigate otherwise inaccessible phenomena such as dark matter and dark energy. An understanding of gravity—what it is, how it works, and why it is the most dominant and puzzling force in the universe—is both endlessly fascinating and accessible to any curious person, regardless of his or her science education.

Black Holes, Tides, and Curved Spacetime: Understanding Gravity plunges you into this compelling subject in 24 intensively illustrated half-hour lectures, presented by Professor Benjamin Schumacher of Kenyon College. Professor Schumacher is an award-winning teacher, a prominent theoretical physicist, and a protégé of John Archibald Wheeler, the distinguished gravity theorist who first coined the term “black hole.”

No book or other comparable product exists that presents gravity in such comprehensible detail as this course, which covers the key ideas in gravity research over the past 400 years and gives you the background to understand today’s path-breaking theories in physics. Professor Schumacher even walks you through some of the fundamental equations in the field, such as Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Albert Einstein’s equation governing the curvature of spacetime by matter, giving you a firsthand look at the power of these mathematical expressions to explain reality—plus further opportunities to explore them with the course guidebook.

It All Started with an Apple

The course opens with Newton’s famous apple, which fell from a tree and inspired a revolutionary idea. Newton realized that the force of gravity that acts on an apple near the surface of Earth also extends to the faraway moon, keeping it in its orbit around Earth; similarly, Earth and the other planets are held in orbit around the sun by its gravity, and so on with all the stars and planets throughout the cosmos.

You learn how Newton built on the earlier work of Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler to formulate his celebrated law of universal gravitation, which governs the analysis of practically all motion—on Earth and in the heavens. In the first half of the course, you cover the many implications of this spectacular achievement. In the second half, you see how Einstein’s general theory of relativity solved long-standing mysteries of Newton’s theory and advanced an entirely new picture of gravity as a field. The simple reasoning that led Einstein to his extraordinary conclusions is thrilling to follow in Professor Schumacher’s elegant presentation.

Equally thrilling are the surprising features of gravity that you investigate, including these:

  • Gravity is unimaginably weak—a million, trillion, trillion, trillion times weaker than the electromagnetic force that attracts electrons to protons and holds atoms together. Which raises the question: How can weak gravity dominate all other forces?
  • Galileo was the first to point out that objects with different masses fall at the same rate. Neglecting air resistance, a heavier object does not fall faster than a lighter one—a principle famously demonstrated by an astronaut on the moon with a hammer and a feather.
  • The weightless condition that astronauts experience in space is not because they are beyond the reach of gravity, which is almost as strong in low Earth orbit as it is on the ground. Space travelers experience apparent zero gravity because they are in free fall.
  • According to Einstein, gravity is not actually a force at all. It is a warping of the four-dimensional fabric of the universe, called spacetime. A falling body steered only by gravity follows the most economical path in curved spacetime, called a geodesic.
  • From Black Holes to the Expanding Universe

    While gravity is deeply puzzling, it is also a phenomenon that lends itself to simple experiments that shed light on its unique properties. Professor Schumacher performs engaging in-studio demonstrations that show how scientists study gravity. Our knowledge of gravity has advanced from Galileo’s investigation of falling objects, to Henry Cavendish’s determination of the all-important gravitational constant, to Arthur Eddington’s proof that light bends as it passes near the sun, to today’s search for the almost infinitely subtle signature of gravitational waves. The lectures bring this exciting research to life with scores of informative graphics as well as stunning animations.

    This course also brings you to one of the most incredible predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity: black holes. Learn how Einstein’s theory describes deformed regions of spacetime that are completely cut off from the rest of the universe. Or are they? Professor Schumacher shows how physicists Stephen Hawking and Jacob Bekenstein discovered an intriguing exception to this rule about black holes that has profound implications for the universe.

    Another outcome of Einstein’s equations holds that the universe should be expanding, as Edwin Hubble discovered it is in the 1920s. More recently, astronomers have found that this expansion is accelerating due to an as-yet-unexplained cosmic antigravity known as dark energy. You explore other mysteries, including a Holy Grail of contemporary physics: the search for a theory that encompasses both gravity, which extends its reach across the cosmos, and quantum mechanics, which governs events at the smallest possible scale.

    In Black Holes, Tides, and Curved Spacetime, Professor Schumacher takes you to the very frontier of contemporary physics to explore several revolutionary theories. It’s one of the many ways that you learn how gravity research is no less exciting today as it was when Isaac Newton sat near an apple tree and had a brilliant idea.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Strangest Force
    Begin your exploration of gravity with Isaac Newton and the famous story of the apple. Why was it such a breakthrough to connect a falling apple with the faraway moon? Review the essential characteristics of gravity and learn why small asteroids and large planets have such different shapes. x
  • 2
    Free Fall and Inertia
    Review three great discoveries by the “grandfather” of gravity research, Galileo Galilei. His most famous experiment may never have happened, but his principle of inertia, law of free fall, and principle of relativity are the basis for everything that comes later in the science of gravity—including key breakthroughs by Einstein. x
  • 3
    Revolution in the Heavens
    Drawing on ideas and observations of Nicolaus Copernicus and Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler achieved a great insight about gravity by discovering three laws of planetary motion, relating to the mathematics of orbits. The cause of planetary motion, he determined, must lie in the sun. x
  • 4
    Universal Gravitation
    See how Newton was able to finish Kepler’s revolution by formulating the law of universal gravitation, which says that every object exerts an attractive force on every other object. Also explore Newton’s related discovery of the three laws of motion, which underlie the science of mechanics. x
  • 5
    The Art of Experiment
    Learn how distances in the solar system were first determined. Then chart Henry Cavendish’s historic experiment that found the value of Newton’s gravitational constant. Cavendish’s work allows almost everything in the universe to be weighed. Then see a confirmation of the equivalence principle, which says that gravitational and inertial mass are identical. x
  • 6
    Escape Velocity, Energy, and Rotation
    Begin the first of several lectures that dig deeper into Newton’s laws than Newton himself was able to go. In this lecture, apply the key concepts of energy and angular momentum to study how gravity affects motion. As an example, use simple algebra to calculate the escape velocity from Earth. x
  • 7
    Stars in Their Courses—Orbital Mechanics
    Newton was the first to realize that objects could, in theory, be sent into orbit around Earth. Explore how this works in practice, using the ideas of energy and angular momentum to study how satellites, moons, planets, and stars move through space. x
  • 8
    What Are Tides? Earth and Beyond
    Trace the origin of tides to the simple fact that gravity varies from point to point in space. This leads not just to the rise and fall of the ocean, but to the gradual slowing of Earth’s rotation, Saturn’s spectacular ring system, volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io, and many other phenomena. x
  • 9
    Nudge—Perturbations of Orbits
    For the next three lectures, study the effects of gravity on the motions of more than two bodies. Here, see how even very small orbital changes—small perturbations—are significant. Such effects have revealed the presence of unknown planets, both in our own solar system and around other stars. x
  • 10
    Resonance—Surprises in the Intricate Dance
    Resonance happens whenever a small periodic force produces a large effect on a periodic motion—for example, when you push a child on a swing. Learn how resonance due to gravitational interactions between three bodies can lead to amazing phenomena with planets, asteroids, and rings of planets. x
  • 11
    The Million-Body Problem
    Consider the problem of gravitational interactions between millions of bodies, such as the countless stars in a galaxy. Amazingly, mathematics can reveal useful information even in these complicated cases. Discover how the analysis of the motions of galaxies led to the prediction of dark matter. x
  • 12
    The Billion-Year Battle
    Explore the physics of stars, which are balls of gas in a billion-year battle between the inward pull of gravity and the outward pressure produced by nuclear fusion. Follow this story to its ultimate finish—the triumph of gravity in massive stars that end their lives as black holes. x
  • 13
    From Forces to Fields
    For the rest of the course, focus on the revolutionary view of gravitation launched by Albert Einstein. Review new ideas about fields that allowed physics to extend beyond Newtonian mechanics. Then see how Einstein modified Newton’s laws and created the special theory of relativity. x
  • 14
    The Falling Laboratory
    Einstein focused on gravity in his general theory of relativity. Hear about his “happiest thought”—the realization that a man in free fall perceives gravity as zero. This simple insight resolved a mystery going all the way back to Newton and led Einstein to the startling discovery that gravity affects light and time. x
  • 15
    Spacetime in Zero Gravity
    In an influential interpretation of relativity, Einstein’s former mathematics professor Hermann Minkowski reformulated the theory in terms of four-dimensional geometry, which he called spacetime. Learn how to plot events in this coordinate system in cases where gravity is zero. x
  • 16
    Spacetime Tells Matter How to Move
    See how gravity affects Minkowski’s spacetime geometry, discovering that motion in a gravitational field follows the straightest path in curved spacetime. The curvature in spacetime is not caused by gravity; it is gravity. This startling idea is the essence of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. x
  • 17
    Matter Tells Spacetime How to Curve
    The curvature of spacetime depends upon matter—and tidal effects. In this lecture, see how ordinary tidal effects reveal a simplified form of Einstein’s greatest discovery: the equation governing the curvature of spacetime by matter. x
  • 18
    Light in Curved Spacetime
    See how Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicts the bending of light in a gravitational field, famously confirmed in 1919 by the British scientist Arthur Eddington. Learn how this phenomenon creates natural gravitational lenses—and how the bending of light reveals invisible matter in deep space. x
  • 19
    Gravitomagnetism and Gravitational Waves
    The general theory of relativity predicts new phenomena of gravity analogous to those of electromagnetism. Discover how ultra-sensitive experiments have detected the gravitomagnetism of the Earth, and follow the search for elusive gravitational waves that travel through space. x
  • 20
    Gravity’s Horizon—Anatomy of a Black Hole
    Plunge into the subject of black holes, which are massive objects that have collapsed completely under their own gravity. Learn how black holes distort spacetime and explore the supermassive black holes that lie at the hearts of galaxies. Then ask: Are there such things as micro-black holes? x
  • 21
    Which Universe Is Ours?
    Investigate what Einstein called his “greatest mistake”—his rejection of his own theory’s prediction that spacetime should be dynamic and evolving. Chart the work of a group of scientists, including Alexander Friedman, Georges Lemaître, and Edwin Hubble, who advanced the realization that our universe is expanding from an apparent big bang. x
  • 22
    Cosmic Antigravity—Inflation and Dark Energy
    Using everything you’ve learned about gravity, investigate cosmic antigravity, starting with cosmic inflation, a phenomenon that exponentially increased the size of the universe during the big bang. Then, learn why dark matter cannot be made of ordinary protons and neutrons, and explore the recent discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, powered by a mysterious dark energy inherent in space itself. x
  • 23
    The Force of Creation
    Use a black hole to test the laws of thermodynamics, taking a deeper look at the capacity of gravity to pull matter together and increase entropy at the same time. Probe Stephen Hawking’s most surprising discovery, and then learn that the same force that pulls the apple down and steers the stars in their courses is also nature’s ultimate source of order and complexity. x
  • 24
    The Next Revolution
    Survey the greatest unsolved problem in theoretical physics: the search for a quantum theory of gravity. Examine string theory, loop quantum gravity, and also entropic gravity, which suggests a revolutionary link with thermodynamics. Close the course with a deepened appreciation for the connection between everyday features of gravity and the most exciting questions in contemporary physics and cosmology. x

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  • Suggested readings

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Your professor

Benjamin Schumacher

About Your Professor

Benjamin Schumacher, Ph.D.
Kenyon College
Dr. Benjamin Schumacher is Professor of Physics at Kenyon College, where he has taught for 20 years. He received his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from The University of Texas at Austin in 1990. Professor Schumacher is the author of numerous scientific papers and two books, including Physics in Spacetime: An Introduction to Special Relativity. As one of the founders of quantum information theory, he introduced the term qubit,...
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Black Holes, Tides, and Curved Spacetime: Understanding Gravity is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 98.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great class for astronomer enthusiasts. The professor is great and the course content is just right for science minded people that want to learn more about how gravity, tides and space work. Having taught mechanics and dynamics, I was fascinated by the history and development of the laws of gravity, etc. And his presentation is spot on.
Date published: 2020-05-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I bought this about 2 months ago and find that it was a vry good investment . I thought Iknew a lot but I learned a greta dealand relaized how little I really know about the topic. The lecturer did a very good job, he clearly knows his area and enjoys the topic arae.
Date published: 2020-04-18
Rated 3 out of 5 by from too man coding errors Each chapter has freezes requiring rebooting and finding reentry
Date published: 2020-03-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Truly a Great Course Professor Schumacher not only does a very careful job of bringing us through the ideas of gravity, he is also wonderful in front of the camera which is a rare trait among Great Course teachers.
Date published: 2020-03-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Schumacher Does A Great Job This course turned out to be better than I expected and I give credit for my satisfaction to Benjamin Schumacher. He recognizes that most members of his audience will not have the physics and math capabilities to comprehend the nitty gritty details, so he stays at a high level without sacrificing the ability to grasp the profound and mysterious nature of gravity. He gives enough of the mathematics to aid understanding, but does not allow the math to bog down the flow of the concepts. Good job, professor.
Date published: 2020-03-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gravity in Review Absolutely wonderful! This turned out to be a pretty fun course. Professor Schumacher gets more excited as the lectures move on and he dragged me along with him. It may start out slowly, but he quickly picks up the pace. These lectures were good enough to repeat without my becoming bored. Which I think is important because the real secret in becoming expert in anything is to master the fundamentals of a subject. Command of the fundamentals leads to deeper meanings of the interrelationships of principles. I thought it was a good idea to minimize the equation work so a viewer can concentrate on the concepts, but it also strikes me that a follow on course that embraces a more comprehensive coverage of the mathematics would be something worth exploring. Gravity II, if you like. An extended course, in my mind, could address what's lacking: practical math problems (and their solutions). For instance, orbital mechanics should have a problem that many viewers would like to have answered. And I can think of two interesting examples: 1) how to calculate an escape velocity that results in achieving an lunar orbit; many people would like to work out that problem, I'm sure. 2) how to solve a problem involving a Three Body Problem, say, the Sun, Jupiter, and the Trojan asteroids; a simplified version could jump start a person's interest in calculating similar astronomical variations. I particularly liked the lectures on tidal effects, resonance, and the Roche limit. I really liked the lectures on these areas and think these subjects would be perfect for developing a practical problem/solution; actual problem solving would deepen the leaning experience. Even if these problems are just added into the Course Guidebook, like the quizzes in "A Field Guide to the Planets" (Sabine), its a useful tool for gaining command of the fundamentals. I guess I'm just looking for ways to enhance the learning experience and I think once you've covered a subject matter, you're ready to take an advanced course that demands more of your participation. I believe that explaining specific practical matters could really jump start a young person's interest in astronomy or physics--as well as satisfying a senior citizen's immediate curiosity. I encourage you to consider taking the successful courses, like "Understanding Gravity," a bit further and use the Course Guidebooks to facilitate a deeper educational experience. I think this course is a good candidate for developing into a Master Course. You know...a course that is designed to be collected into a set of related courses for the edification of determined students to gain the total experience of a broader subject area. And yes, I would be one of those students. (I'd be your go-to student to consult with on the idea of developing a Master Course on Astrobiology, in case you were wondering. See: Jonathan Lunine, "Astrobiology: A Multidisciplinary Approach.")
Date published: 2020-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Essential If you dare to venture into these deep and difficult waters I can think of no guide with a more sure and steady hand than Professor Schumacher, who makes it all seem easy, to the point that one begins to see things that way.
Date published: 2020-02-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding presentation by outstanding teachers I purchase these outstanding subjects both for me and for my grandchildren. I have the streaming for my review and the DVD Course product to give my grandchildren the ability to learn and decide their future course of study in college. I select the courses based on my grandchildren's varied interests.
Date published: 2020-01-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from understanding gravity General relativity is a tough nut to crack. I can't imagine a better way to scratch the surface of this subject. Excellent presentation of Newtonian gravity. Goes as far as deriving Reimann Spacetime curvature but does not fully explore the Einstein equation. Excellent beginning for in depth study into GR.
Date published: 2020-01-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Understandable I loved this course as much as I have appreciated all Professor Schumacher's courses for the same reason: no sentence is superfluous. He carefully builds the knowledge that one has to have in order to understand the subject. If you follow each sentence and concept carefully, you will be able to progress through the course to its conclusion. Unlike some other lecturers, his enthusiasm and odd joke are genuine, not forced.
Date published: 2020-01-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The most important course in this category This course covers all possible current aspects of searching and understanding space. I listened to many courses on this subject and this one gave me understanding like no others. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2019-12-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent and Entertaining Presentation Style This is my tenth Great Courses. Most have been about science but I have also done some humanities. The presenter for the "Irish Identity" was outstanding. This course was also presented at a very high level. Great background on the personalities of Newton, Galileo and Einstein that put in perspective their thought processes and the reaction of their contempories at their time. I highly recommend it.
Date published: 2019-12-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Intense discussion Remarkable coverage of the concept of gravity that will go beyond all conventional teaching. At times difficult to understand but overall remarkable learning.
Date published: 2019-09-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An inviting title! A great review of this very important topic for an understanding of the universe.
Date published: 2019-08-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful explanations of challenging material This is material that is indirectly relevant to my work in the space industry and subject matter that I've been exposed to as a result. This course provided an understanding of the phenomena that is simply outstanding.
Date published: 2019-07-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Simple, direct and to the point. Still in the process of watching all the lectures. But, so far, have not seen anything to complain about. An excellent series.
Date published: 2019-06-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I found that "Black Holes....Understanding Gravity" was just the right level for me. I have a Master Degree in Physics. So the first disc was very elementary. But beginning with the second disc, I learned an increasing amount of new physics much of which was discovered after my formal education in Physics ended in the 60's. I now have a much deeper understanding of the relationship between relativity and gravity.
Date published: 2019-02-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic Course! I especially like the way the course built on itself to layout the amazing topic of gravity. Dr. Schumacher made this both deep and palatable for a novice and yet tickled the lay-scientist in me to want to explore gravity even more. I guess you can say I am even more attracted to the topic as the mass of knowledge increases in my head. Amazing...even information follows the nature of gravity. Well done, Dr. Schumacher; this met and exceeded my expectations. Thank you.
Date published: 2019-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Instructor and Content The course starts off slowly (as it should) and eventually builds a comprehensive understanding of the topic. The instructor uses a few essential equations to explain basic concepts so anyone with a modest math background can still follow the lectures without difficulty. Thank you for such an excellent introduction. Cannot wait to see an updated version/addition given the recent discoveries about dark matter and energy.
Date published: 2019-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from exact and to the point I have purchased numerous science courses from this company and this is one of the best ones. Professor Schumacher makes the course interesting and informative and while he goes into great detail with the science and math if you have a basic understanding of gravity you are never lost. One of the most interesting and informative courses to date.
Date published: 2018-11-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course for Non-Scientists I've just finished watching this for the second time. I'm sure I will watch it again. There is so much information here, it does indeed feel like attending a university course. Gravity is the dominant force in the universe. To understand gravity is to understand the universe. Professor Schumacher walks us through man kinds understanding of gravity and the universe in a direct, common sense manner. His grasp of this material is to me amazing. It doesn't come easy, these concepts are deep. It would be easier for me if I knew math better. But even though I don't, I just let that part of it go by and thoroughly enjoyed the entire course. It feels good to know that I understand some of what makes the world go round.
Date published: 2018-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Learned cause of curvature of spacetime. The best part was learning the cause of the curvature of spacetime - it is the time dilation of time by gravity. Although I knew of curved spacetime, I had never seen an explanation and the explanation was great. I also appreciated the effect of orbiting resonance - like the blank spaces in the asteroid belt and spaces in the rings of Saturn. And I appreciated the histories.
Date published: 2018-11-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Super great! We need to know more about black holes! Black holes are not new, we need more info an this subject!
Date published: 2018-10-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I learned some new things A good review of what most already know and an insight into some complex new (to the amateur anyway) physics. Like many of these courses though, the professor spends an inordinate amount of time on the obvious, like explaining the Pythagorean Theorem and then completely skips over explaining something abstract, like where "the second most important minus sign in the universe" came from. Well worth the time and cost but I wish more time was spent explaining the non obvious.
Date published: 2018-10-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Teacher! I have many Great Courses, but among them, this had the best lecturer (Professor Schumacher). His order of presentation was perfect to help us understand the topics, and the pace was very good.
Date published: 2018-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyed the presentation I like the professor's presentation style. Many aspects of gravity covered.
Date published: 2018-09-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Astro-Phsics for the Non-Scientist This is an excellent course for those interested in the forces in our universe who are not students of the cosmos. The lectures dealing with gravity are especially interesting.
Date published: 2018-06-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from gravity is upgraded since einstein All the books I read about gravity and spacetime are a bit out of date so an update is essential. Especially when grandkids expect a knowledgeable answer! Great for even old people like me.
Date published: 2018-06-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course This is a good beginner's course for anyone interested in gravity, not too technical. The instructor is professional and presents the subject manner in a way that's easy to understand, breaking down the equations and showing the ideas behind them. The demonstrations are appropriate and make you think about what is being discussed. Wonderful! Thank you, GC.
Date published: 2018-04-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Overview of Gravitation I just finished this course and I loved it. Although my undergraduate degree was in applied physics, and although I’ve studied gravitation at the level of Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler’s classic book on general relativity- I enjoyed this overview of the topic from start to finish. The historical references were interesting, and helped to illustrate how science develops over time. Dr. Schumacher is knowledgeable and engaging. Potentially difficult concepts were clearly presented. In addition to the value of learning (or reviewing) this subject matter, I believe this course is an example of outstanding teaching.
Date published: 2018-03-30
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