Great Ideas of Classical Physics

Course No. 1295
Professor Steven Pollock, Ph.D.
University of Colorado, Boulder
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Course No. 1295
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Course Overview

There is a hidden order in the ceaselessly changing world around us. It's called classical physics, and it's about how the world is put together. Classical physics is about how things move, why they move, and how they work. It's about making sense of motion, gravity, light, heat, sound, electricity, and magnetism, and seeing how these phenomena interweave to create the rich tapestry of everyday experience.

Sound complicated? It's not—you already know more physics than you think, says award-winning science educator Steven Pollock.

Basic Principles You Can Learn

In this mind-expanding series of 24 lectures, Professor Steven Pollock takes you step by step through the Great Ideas of Classical Physics, showing that landmark concepts such as Newton's laws of motion are intuitively understood by anyone who has ever ridden a bike, thrown a ball, slid across ice, or simply picked up an object and set it down.

Created over the course of three centuries by a series of brilliant thinkers, including Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and James Clerk Maxwell, classical physics is an elegant system of ideas that connect a range of seemingly unrelated phenomena.

Everything from the acceleration of a car, to the orbit of a planet, to the deflection of a compass needle, to the baking of a cake, to the flow of electricity through a light bulb as you read this—and much more—is linked by a set of basic principles that you can learn.

And you don't have to study complicated mathematical equations to see these connections—as Professor Pollock proves by teaching this course largely without math, by relying on metaphor, life experience, ordinary logic, and common sense. Dr. Pollock will be familiar to many Teaching Company customers for his course, Particle Physics for Non-Physicists: A Tour of the Microcosmos.

The Universe Is Your Laboratory

What are the great ideas of classical physics? They are the conceptual tools that allow us to make sense of the world. They include discoveries, theories, insights, methods, and philosophical points of view. You will explore many of these breakthrough ideas, for example:

  • Experiment: It may seem obvious that if you want to understand something, you should experiment on it and not just think about it. But this idea did not catch on until Galileo performed a series of revolutionary investigations of motion in the early 1600s.
  • Use standards: One of the secrets of Galileo's success was that he used standard procedures, units, and techniques of analysis to compare his results. This approach led him to conclusions, like his principle of inertia, that no else had ever imagined.
  • Simplify: Another powerful insight of Galileo's was to start with simple cases and add complexity later. All physicists do this. In fact, they have a joke about it: A physicist is hired to advise a dairy farmer and says, "First, assume a spherical cow"!
  • Recognize the fundamental nature of obvious things: The common observation that hot objects cool down and cold ones warm up became the basis for the second law of thermodynamics, proposed by the French engineer Sadi Carnot in the early 1800s. The second law has profound implications for heat engines and for the "direction" of time.

Along with these and other general concepts, you learn about such basic features of reality as force and energy, space and time, electricity and magnetism; and you learn how these properties interact in a range of situations. As you proceed through the course, you will find that the entire universe—from atoms to galaxies—is your laboratory.

Powerful and Surprisingly Beautiful Ideas

The course opens in ancient Greece with Aristotle's commonsense analysis of motion. His ideas held sway until the early 1600s, when Galileo challenged them with one of the simplest yet most profound experiments of all time—he rolled marbles down an inclined plane.

The technique allowed Galileo to explore the action of gravity "in slow motion" to show that, contrary to Aristotle's claims, all objects fall at the same rate regardless of mass, and that the speed of a falling object steadily increases—it accelerates.

A generation after Galileo, Newton united the laws of heavenly and earthly motion in a grand synthesis that marked the full dawn of classical physics. The exploration of Newton's three laws of motion and his universal law of gravitation forms the core of the first half of the course.

In the second half of the course, Professor Pollock introduces the ideas of electricity and magnetism. Considered curiosities in Newton's day, these seemingly minor marvels were integrated into the classical picture in the 19th century through the remarkable work of Faraday, Maxwell, and others.

The course concludes with a series of lectures on waves, optics, atoms, and thermodynamics, bringing classical physics to the brink of the watershed theories of relativity and quantum mechanics in the early 20th century, which marked the start of modern physics.

Your Homework: Play a Little Bit

Classical physics was invented by people at play, and Dr. Pollock encourages you to do the same. "There will be many times in this course when you should just go after class and play a little bit," he counsels. That's what Galileo, Faraday, and other pioneer scientists did.

Here are some playful activities that Dr. Pollock recommends:

  • Falling objects: When you drop a pen and a piece of paper at the same time, it seems to confirm the commonsense expectation that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. But now crumple the sheet of paper and drop them again. What happens?
  • Static electricity: Put one piece of sticky tape on top of another, and then attach them to a table. Label the top piece of tape "T" and the bottom piece "B." Yank the pair off, and then quickly separate them. Investigate their behavior near each other and near identically prepared pieces. What's going on?
  • Magnetism: Using two magnets, probe their interacting force fields by passing one all around the other. Where are the areas of attraction and repulsion? What accounts for this invisible force?
  • Waves: A Slinky demonstrates the particlelike properties of some waves. To see how, expand a Slinky and jerk your hand, making a pulse travel from one end to the other. Like a particle, the pulse is localized; it also has a speed, and it can reflect off boundaries. Yet it is a wave.

The Course Guidebook that comes with this course includes many more activities for creative play through online computer simulations, developed by Dr. Pollock's education research colleagues.

On the Shoulders of Giants

Some people accept the mystery of the world at face value and never inquire further. Physicists can't help but seek answers, and you will feel the same way.

If you want to understand how a baseball behaves in a baseball stadium, or how the electricity for your house is generated, or how your microwave oven works, these are ideas that can be understood from classical physics. If you are concerned about energy and the environment, then the tools provided by this course are sufficient for you to understand the scientific questions.

Isaac Newton once commented that if he had seen farther than others, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. "Classical physics is the giant on whose shoulder we stand today," says Professor Pollock, "as we move into new realms of study, into modern physics, or contemporary biology, or any of a number of modern disciplines."

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Great Ideas of Classical Physics
    Professor Pollock opens the course with an overview of the domain of classical physics: forces and motion, matter and energy, space and time, and particles and waves. x
  • 2
    Describing Motion—A Break from Aristotle
    Greek natural philosophers made enormous progress 2,000 years ago but missed something essential in their analysis of nature—the scientific method. This lecture examines Galileo's challenge to ancient ideas. x
  • 3
    Describing Ever More Complex Motion
    Galileo's study of marbles rolling down ramps led to a distinction between velocity and acceleration. Acceleration is one of the paradigmatic ideas in physics, relating to the concept of rate of change. x
  • 4
    Astronomy as a Bridge to Modern Physics
    Speculations on Earth's place in the universe, the nature of planets, and the structure of the solar system were at the heart of the development of classical physics. This lecture looks at the work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. x
  • 5
    Isaac Newton—The Dawn of Classical Physics
    The turning point in the development of classical physics traces to Isaac Newton. This lecture covers Newton's background and the first two of his laws of motion, involving inertia (mass), acceleration, and force. x
  • 6
    Newton Quantified—Force and Acceleration
    The master idea for this course is Newton's statement of the relationship between force and acceleration: F = ma. This formula determines almost all of classical physics. It is at once simple and deep. x
  • 7
    Newton and the Connections to Astronomy
    Thinking about circular motion led Newton to an understanding of planetary motion, closing the loop with Galileo, Kepler, and Copernicus, and making sense of a Sun-centered solar system and its connection to everyday motion. x
  • 8
    Universal Gravitation
    Newton's deduction of the law of gravity involved some speculation, just a little math, and a lot of creativity. Remarkably, it succeeded in unifying terrestrial and celestial phenomena into one framework. x
  • 9
    Newton's Third Law
    Newton's third law of motion ("for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction") can be exasperatingly counter-intuitive at first, but it makes perfect sense in terms of a new quantity, momentum. x
  • 10
    Conservation of Momentum
    Introducing the concept of momentum broadens the power of physics and results in the Newtonian world-view of the universe as a deterministic clockwork, based on only a few basic underlying and unified principles. x
  • 11
    Beyond Newton—Work and Energy
    A century after Newton, a new concept more abstract than force gained popularity: energy. Energy forms the basis of understanding everything from chemistry and biology to geology and engineering. x
  • 12
    Power and the Newtonian Synthesis
    The concept that energy can move from place to place and change forms helps explain why things behave as they do. The rate at which energy flows from one system to another (the power) explains even more. x
  • 13
    Further Developments—Static Electricity
    In Newton's day, electricity and magnetism were mere curiosities. By the 19th century, serious investigation into these phenomena began. Though heralded as "new" forces of nature, they still fit within the Newtonian framework. x
  • 14
    Electricity, Magnetism, and Force Fields
    In his studies of electricity and magnetism, Michael Faraday introduced the radical idea of the force "field." Sources create a field around them, and other objects then respond locally to that field. x
  • 15
    Electrical Currents and Voltage
    This lecture covers electrical concepts such as charge, voltage, and current. Progress in understanding electricity in the 19th century led to rapid developments in applied physics. x
  • 16
    The Origin of Electric and Magnetic Fields
    Electricity and magnetism are distinct but intimately related. This lecture explores the myriad connections between them, leading to a deeper understanding of the unity of electromagnetic physics. x
  • 17
    Unification I—Maxwell's Equations
    In one of the great triumphs of classical physics, James Clerk Maxwell summarized two centuries of research on electricity and magnetism in four famous equations, explained here in words and concepts. x
  • 18
    Unification II—Electromagnetism and Light
    Published in the 1860s, Maxwell's equations made a startling prediction: Electric and magnetic fields should interact to produce electromagnetic waves—of which visible light is only a tiny range of a vast spectrum. x
  • 19
    Vibrations and Waves
    Vibrations and the associated phenomenon of waves are everywhere in the natural world. Understanding the big ideas of waves plays a key role in the developing story of physics. x
  • 20
    Sound Waves and Light Waves
    One hundred years after Newton described light as a stream of particles, Thomas Young turned the world of optics on its head when he demonstrated that light was not made of particles but was in fact a wave phenomenon. x
  • 21
    The Atomic Hypothesis
    Atoms provide a unifying principle even greater than Maxwell's equations. Energy, structure of materials, chemistry, heat, optics, and much more become simpler to describe and explain at a fundamental level. x
  • 22
    Energy in Systems—Heat and Thermodynamics
    Thermodynamics is the study of heat and energy. When there are large numbers of particles, average quantities become easier, not more difficult, to predict. This is the heart of thermodynamics. x
  • 23
    Heat and the Second Law of Thermodynamics
    One of the last great developments of classic physics was the discovery of a new property of systems, entropy, defined colloquially as "you can't win, you can't break even, and you can't get out of the game." x
  • 24
    The Grand Picture of Classical Physics
    Classical physics is defined in part historically and in part by a philosophical outlook: The world is ordered, and there is a limited set of fundamental ideas that explain and predict all natural phenomena. x

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Your professor

Steven Pollock

About Your Professor

Steven Pollock, Ph.D.
University of Colorado, Boulder
Dr. Steven Pollock is Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He earned his B.S. in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his master's degree and Ph.D. in Physics from Stanford University. Prior to taking his position at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Professor Pollock was a senior researcher at the National Institute for Nuclear and High Energy Physics. In 2013, Professor...
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Great Ideas of Classical Physics is rated 3.8 out of 5 by 78.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The enthusiasm of the professor came through the video and was implanted in me.
Date published: 2018-07-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Renew my knowledge of physics Very focus on the subjects and I renew my physics knowledge
Date published: 2018-07-04
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Just a history review Narrator was not acceptable, returned DVD for credit. Watched the first three sessions only.
Date published: 2018-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wish it was 36 lessons Great presentations. Covered many topics. Bought it to get my grandson ready for Physics at school but looked at it first. Two lessons on history, twenty-two lessons on physics. Very few equations, which is good. I wish it was 36 lessons. There is plenty more that could be said. In general, it was excellent.
Date published: 2018-03-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Problem I don't think you understand the concept of audio download, I want to listen in my car, not plugged into a computer. So I want to download the purchase so I can put it on a flash drive and plug into my car stereo
Date published: 2017-12-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I love it Great complicated subject was explained in the simplest way possible. I am an engineer and i never understood Maxwell equations before this course.
Date published: 2017-11-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from There's no on-line streaming though it says "video" and "watch now" next to the listing. Either get rid of the deceptive items or add the video.
Date published: 2017-09-15
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Great ideas of Classical Physics Terrible--You want it back? I needed a book on Physics, not a lecture on the developers of Physics.
Date published: 2017-08-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Needs graphics This review is only on the first DVD (12 lectures.) This review is a composite of two observers (one novice and one advanced.) To a novice, the material is presented with only verbal descriptions so it is difficult to absorb. Some simple dynamic graphics should be expected to illustrate the concepts. To an advanced viewer the lectures progress too slowly. I would recommend this only to a novice who has someone else to provide the details (interpret the verbal explanations.) The format of the presentation (only a simple lecture room with no blackboards or image presentation is not suited to this subject.) Other lecture series from the Great Courses have been excellent with this format of presentation.
Date published: 2017-06-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I have not yet viewed all course chapters, but to date I find the lectures engaging and helpful. I agree with other reviewers that the course material is quite basic and not as challenging as represented, however I was looking more for basic fundamentals and am not disappointed that the materials do not meet the standards for college prep physics. My one negative comment is that based on the other courses I had ordered this course would be streamed. However, only after I called customer serviced did I find that this course is one of the extremely few that cannot be streamed. This was quite disappointing as streaming is a most convenient way to go through the courses. I found nothing in the catalog that cautioned me otherwise. In my conversation with the customer service representative, I was told only that he was sorry, but nothing could be done. I had hoped that there would be some explanation why better disclosures could not have been made, to better help me decide whether this particular course would work for me.
Date published: 2017-06-24
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Should be more rigorous Professor Pollock is very engaging and charming and the subject matter is very interesting but I'm sorry to say I'm losing interest in this course. I don't want to watch a survey or casual description of these groundbreaking concepts in Physics. I want to know how to calculate velocity heat flow or whatever the topic is. It's quite frustrating to see Professor Pollock side-step the equations underlying the concepts he's describing. We get to hear about F=MA but don't use the equation to solve any problems, even in the Course Guidebook. Professor Pollock keeps referring to the things you'd be asked to do in an introductory Physics course. Isn't this an introductory Physics course? I'd thought and hoped it was. I would surely take another course taught by Professor Pollock if it is mathematically rigorous.
Date published: 2017-04-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointed Given the description of the lecturer, I expected superior lectures. That's not what I found. The lectures were unfocussed, with poorly defined objectives. The language used was imprecise and inconsistent. Worst of all they were uninspiring. I gave better Physics lectures in the High School courses I taught.
Date published: 2017-03-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What a wonder subject/professor. I always wanted to learn physics from way back in high school days, well over 40 years ago from the area of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The subject has always intrigued me. I only had to find the right teacher for me. Dr. Pollock presents this subject in a way that I can understand it now that I am ready to learn it. Thank you very much.
Date published: 2017-03-04
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A high School Level Course I liked the lecturer. He obviously had a deep understanding of his subject and really tried to make his subject matter interesting. However the course seemed to be something more suited to high school students as opposed to college students. It wasn't only that he assumed that the listeners had no physics background (and I mean none at all - not even middle school physics), but he assumed that his listeners had no math ability at all - he explained how he did basic multiplication. And when he talked about the theorems, he used analogies but never actually explained the theorems if they were any more complicated than F=MA. I can't say that I didn't enjoy the lectures, I just wish that he would have assumed the listener had (at least once) been accepted to college. This course is really suitable only for someone with no science background looking for the most basic introduction to physics.
Date published: 2017-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Course -- Highly Recommended I would give this course 6 stars if I could. The professor's presentation is astonishingly clear and intuitive. Without being hypertechnical, the course brought me a considerably deeper understanding of the subject. In particular, the explanation of Maxwell's Equations and their implications for electromagnetic radiation is the best I have ever seen. This course is superb both as a stand-alone or as a supplement to one with fuller quantitative and mathematical elaboration.
Date published: 2016-11-16
Rated 3 out of 5 by from In a quandary I am confused. The course covers a interesting topic. The instructor has good training, teaches at a good school, and has received significant awards as well as a promotion (after the courdse was recorded). Conversely, my reaction would be to give the course two stars and the instructor one star. I'd even say, don't go to Boulder to study physics, though we all know that's not true. There is a big disconnect between the rating I would expect and my reaction to the course. So I compromised with three stars. To be fair, I have not read other reviews so see if I'm really off base here. You will need to form your own opinion of the course.
Date published: 2016-08-02
Rated 2 out of 5 by from not for beginners I am male 55 years old hold a PhD from the London School of Economics and have been working for over 25 years as a professional economist. I must have watched 20-30 Great Courses over the past ten years. No exaggeration to say it has changed my life and given me great intellectual satisfaction. I consider this course as definitely the worst. No-one, no-one can hope to "learn" physics from scratch by watching this. If one knows physics already (as I do to first-year college level) one should be able to follow though the teacher's presentation is not really organized. Clearly the teacher does not lack depth but simply he does not attempt to explain clearly or give a systematic exposition. At this point it might be useful to reveal that I have watched three courses given by Professor Starbird (whom some reviewers criticize on grounds of poor organization) and I quite liked them! I'm no severe judge but Prof. Pollock is far worse! He seems to be an expert in creating confusion! The scarcity of graphics (and of a blackboard for that matter) not to mention the nearly complete absence of demonstrations of experiments is particularly ridiculous and makes for such a poor comparison with Prof. Wolfson's courses. The teacher indicates by gestures (!) what would have been (at least in the early 20th century) written out or sketched on a blackboard by chalk. He seems to believe that he successfully gets rid of math by describing(!) the equations in words (here goes the numerator, there the denominator, there's a weighted average, mentioned but never indicated on slides or on the non-existent blackboard). One can only hope to follow if one has seen the equations beforehand. Does the course, then, illustrate what physics is about and what it has achieved over the centuries even if not explaining physics as such? That would require a Sean Carroll and hundreds more pictures and graphics for starters. Electricity, notably Maxwell equations, waves and thermodynamics comes out somewhat better than mechanics (the first half of the course) which appears as the low point. Though Prof. Pollock appears as a very nice and enthusiastic person and a highly knowledgeable physicist, one cannot avoid the feeling that the course signals lack of respect for the viewer.
Date published: 2016-03-27
Rated 2 out of 5 by from not a good purchase course is very slow. there has to be a better way to present this material. it takes the instructor forever to say anything.
Date published: 2016-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Standing on the shoulders of giants The professor does an excellent job covering the classical physics concepts at a perfect pace for the layperson, and he does so without being awkwardly distracting or annoying (like some of the lecturers in other courses). This one and Dr. Novella's "Medical Myths, Lies, and Half Truths" are my two favorite courses so far. I'll go back and relisten to this again in a few years to review, because it's so interesting as well as important. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2015-12-08
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Burdensome Imagine your worse college professor- this is what kept coming to my mind. I went to a good university where the professor wrote the book. It was straight forward and understandable. In this course, talk and talk and talk and then finally gets to the point. The examples are poorly presented. It also has so many personal comments that add nothing to the material. There is some history of the development of physics. I would not recommend this to anyone.
Date published: 2014-12-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good overview I missed out on taking physics in school, but have always loved history. This course filled both categories. Though certainly not a substitute for the study of physics, it is a good overview of the genesis and development of major theories and points of understanding in physics.
Date published: 2014-04-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The title says it all. This is neither a quantitative course, nor a course for passive listening. If you are wondering whether or not you need the video version, I recommend audio with this one. If you want to hear a knowledgable professor give a logical progression of many of the great ideas of physics, with bits of historical context thrown in, then this course is for you.
Date published: 2014-01-14
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Gesticulation over the top Learning why religion and the church are bad will not help me on my next Physics exam. This presentation was juvenile. I can see the potential with this professor but he clearly has some issues that stand in the way of the subject-matter. I needed what was advertised. Horrible job. However I have bought many courses from this company and this is the first bad one for me.
Date published: 2013-09-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not enough substance This course was way too hand wavy for my taste. We got f=ma, but little else in the way of meat on the bones. Kepler's laws were so watered down as to be almost unrecognizable. Certainly I can see that Maxwell's equations would be a bit much for a course such as this, but the equation for gravitational attraction isn't beyond a layman's grasp. It seemed like the instructor spent more time talking about there being great ideas in classical physics than he did in actually presenting them.
Date published: 2013-03-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Nice overview While I enjoyed listening to the course, I have to agree with the other reviewers, that this course is not quite as deep and satisfying as Dr Pollock's other, Particle Physics, course or Dr Wolfson's Physics in Our Universe. This aside, the material is very well presented and can be appreciated by audience with dislike of math and interest in basic physics concepts.
Date published: 2013-01-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Worthwhile Introduction or review Great Ideas of Classical Physics can be approached on a number of levels. This course works well as an introduction or a review of Classical Physics, as weel as a supplement for current students. It can be appreciated as a qualitative introduction and history of the development of Classical Physics. I would recommend Bernard Cohen’s “The Birth of a New Physics” from the bibliography if approaching it this way. For a review, after some years away from the classroom and math, it may be helpful to look at Cropper’s “Great Physicists” from the bibliography, and the PhET Simulations. It can be a supplement for current students, as an independent study prior to or during first year college physics and/or advanced placement high school with the Thinkwell online Physics calculus-based supplement, mentioned in the Course Book, which is available from a provider not related to TGC for a fee. One of the strengths of TGC, in my opinion, is the depth of levels that one can approach courses. Having the ability to review, delve into according to one’s interest, at one own’s pace makes these courses worthwhile for me. Professor Pollock is a good teacher and covers the material in an engaging way. No matter one’s background, I think this course is worth a look if you have an interest in Classical Physics.
Date published: 2012-12-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Course So Far ...that I've listened to anyways. Top notch instructor and very interesting material. It probably helps that I'm a techno-geek.
Date published: 2012-12-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Course is at high-school level The course is aimed at high-school students or adults with math phobia. This makes it unsuited as a college-level course. The lack of mathematics makes the course much more long-winded than it needs to be. My guess is that, by introducing a small amount of math, the course size could be cut in half and the course made twice as interesting.
Date published: 2012-11-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Joy To Listen To I purchased this course back in 2008 and have listened to it many times over the years to refresh. My work does not normally require me to think in "physical" terms, however, I find that each time I listen to the lectures, I gain additional understanding with the passage of time and it encourages my mind to re-think about the ways the world works. The speaker is fun and easy to listen to--he is enthusiastic and uses relevant examples that are simple to understand.
Date published: 2012-06-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not up to the usual standard OK ...I'm coming back to physics after having studied it at school too many years ago but I'm sure it was more exciting than the way Professor Pollock presents it here. Unfortunately for me it comes across as pretty dull. Admittedly the background to the historical thinkers was enlightening but the thanks. On reflection I think I must put this down alot to the way the Professor presents his subject. Thankfully this wasn't my first course purchased or I may have not bothered at all. Looking at other reviewers' comments I appear to be in a minority but unless you have some physics background I would suggest trying other science courses in preference to this one.
Date published: 2012-05-17
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