Neutrinos may not be neutral after all!

| August 24, 2010 | 58 Replies

Do neutrinos affect radioactive decay? That’s what new research at Purdue seems to suggest.

When researchers at Purdue were looking for a reliable way to generate random numbers, they thought they were smart to use radioactive decay – after all the rate of decay was a known constant (for a given material) but the decay of any particular atom was truly random. But what they discovered may have huge implications for the Standard Model, for physics and for cosmology.

As the researchers pored through published data on specific isotopes, they found disagreement in the measured decay rates – odd for supposed physical constants.
Checking data collected at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island and the Federal Physical and Technical Institute in Germany, they came across something even more surprising: long-term observation of the decay rate of silicon-32 and radium-226 seemed to show a small seasonal variation. The decay rate was ever so slightly faster in winter than in summer.

In addition, during a solar flare event in Dec 2006, a Purdue researcher, observing day in manganese-54, noticed that the decay rate began to drop almost 36 hours before the flare event

First Neutrino Observed (1970) (Wikimedia Commons)

became visible on earth. In a series of published papers, the Purdue team showed that the observed variations in decay rates were highly unlikely to have come from environmental influences on the detection systems.

Their findings strengthened the argument that the strange swings in decay rates were caused by neutrinos from the sun. The decay rates dropped as the Earth came closer to the sun (where it would be exposed to more neutrinos) and rose as the Earth moved farther away.

So there was good reason to suspect the sun, but could it be proven?

Enter Peter Sturrock, Stanford professor emeritus of applied physics and an expert on the inner workings of the sun. Sturrock knew from his experience that the observed neutrino intensity varies on a regular basis as the sun revolves and shows a different face to the Earth. He suggested that Purdue Look for evidence that the changes in radioactive decay on Earth vary with the rotation of the sun.

Looking again at the decay data from the Brookhaven lab, the researchers found a recurring pattern of 33 days, which differed from the observed solar rotation period of about 28 days. They explain this by suggesting that the core of the sun – where nuclear reactions produce neutrinos – spins more slowly than the surface.

The evidence points toward a conclusion that emissions from the sun are directly influencing radioactive isotopes on Earth.

However, no one knows how neutrinos could interact with radioactive materials to change their rate of decay. This result holds promise in many ways: as an early warning system for Solar Flares; as an avenue for new research on neutrinos; or as the first inking of even stranger new particles. “It would have to be something we don’t know about, an unknown particle that is also emitted by the sun and has this effect, and that would be even more remarkable,” Sturrock said.

H/T: io9 and Symmetry Magazine


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Category: Science

About the Author ()

I'm a technophile with an enduring interest in almost anything real or imagined. I suffer fools badly, and love trashy science fiction, plot-free action movies, playing guitar, and baking (especially scones. You haven't lived 'til you've eaten my scones. I've recently undertaken bread, and am now in danger of gaining in a matter of weeks the 60 pounds I've lost in the past 2 years). My wife & I are Scottish, living north of Atlanta, GA, with two children, one dog, and a growing collection of gadgets. I work for a living.

Comments (58)

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  1. Tony Coyle says:


    Thanks for your posts. You said what I meant, just more concisely and eloquently.

  2. Tony Coyle says:

    before I leave Karl… his last post crossed over and I need to highlight one little thing

    <blockquotes>The pre-flood Sumerians appear to track their ages much differently than the post flood Sumerians</blockquotes>

    So were the Sumerians on the Ark, too? (Karl didn't respond to my questions regarding the genesis account – I can only presume he cannot respond without looking like a prat – by commission or omission)

  3. Karl,

    Noah brought clay tablets aboard an already massively overloaded boat? Now, that is a free-wheeling interpretation of the relevant passages of a scope I wouldn't dare to make.

    As for the dating thing, you don't think the scholars whose field it is to know these things haven't taken that into account in their datings? Or are they involved in the conspiracy to discount your preferred alternate readings?

    As to pre and post Diluvian dating, yes, there seems to be a variant, especially in the ages of the patriarchs in the OT. You have these ancient people like Methusaleh, even Adam, and the rest, living hundreds of years, then after the flood things become suddenly "normal."

    A quick and dirty calculation shows that those magnificent centuries-long lives reduce easily if you supplant Years with Months and almost all of them become fairly normal length. Not at all ridiculous, since lunar calendars were common among agrarians and nomads while solar years emerged from urban centers. There may be another explanation, but I find that one interesting. So the life spans didn't change, just the way they're measured, which suggests to me that the Pentateuch and the rest are transcriptions from oral traditions made in up-and-running cities at a much later date. Again, not eye-witness accounts of anything.

    Particularly when so much of even Genesis is a step or two removed from older Creation myths that are more archetypal (like the Sumerian) and less personalized, and the only separating Tiamat from the Void is a consonant shift…

    But that's a whole 'nother thread and I'm bored with this.

    Basically, you privilege one text over others. I don't see you running out asserting that Baal was real, only Yahweh. As to the Flood…


  4. Karl says:

    For any local dynasties across the world that may have had some of their buildings, language and culture that survived the Global Flood, if dated correctly, these dynasties will confirm the global flood by their missing years of clear continuous records and/or a major change in how these records were started again. Mainly a significant culture and language shift of some sort should be seen in the records.

    For example, the Akkadians apparently tried to use Sumerian like clay tablets but could make little sense out of the sexidecimal number system used by the pre-flood Sumerians.

    It would have taken decades of population increase before remote regions devastated by the Global Flood could have been re-inhabited. The Sumer and Shinar region was re-inhabited quickly because of its proximity to the land fall of the Ark.

    The problem with the modern proposed Egyptian histories is that some of them not only predate the flood, they also predate the creation account of Moses. This makes no sense because Moses who compiled the Hebrew histories was schooled in all of the learning and wisdom the Egyptians.

    Moses would not have proposed a history of the Hebrews when a known valid history of the Egyptians would have been contradictory.

    Sorry to not have made myself clear as to where I was heading with this but I was asked to respond in the size of a post card.

  5. Karl says:

    Dan states,

    "That neutrino flux seems to affect decay rates is not actually paradigm challenging. Nuclear transformations that emit neutrinos would be expected to be matched by symmetric transformations that absorb them. Just like the symmetry between beta decay and electron capture transformations."

    It is however possible that in neutrino flux through matter were variable then so too would their half-lives be affected by it.

    You may attempt to downplay the ramifications of what this may mean in terms of the mathematical model being a simply spontaneous nature built into matter itself.

    If any particle(or amount of external energy) of any size can be shown to be the real cause of "natural" spontaneous radioactivity then the half life concept is no longer one that can be defended as being able to reliably return a hard and fast date for the age of unobserved very old rocks.

  6. Karl writes:—"Moses would not have proposed a history of the Hebrews when a known valid history of the Egyptians would have been contradictory."

    Assuming "Moses" actually wrote these accounts, then why wouldn't he replace what he must have regarded as a "pagan" history (I use that term loosely and metaphorically) with one the Hebrews could call all their own. He was, in his way, a patriot.

    (For instance, in our own history, we make the War of 1812 All About Us, but for the British we were a side show—their main thing was with Napoleon, and guess what? They're correct in that. A shift in emphasis changes the whole tone of a historical account.)

    But elements of the Genesis account synch up rather nicely with older accounts from other cultures, so it is a borrowed account. To use Genesis as the baseline to claim all the others are false is…

    Size of a postcard complaint is understood and appreciated. Arguing this would require volumes to do it properly. It just happens not to be a very interesting argument to me, but like an itch I can't reach it drives me nuts when misrepresentation is used in lieu of better, truer explanations.

    The Hebrew account of Creation is derivative.

    Like most of the rest of the Bible.

    While no one here—certainly not I—would dispute the likelihood of local floods, there is a profound lack of evidence for a Global cataclysm.

    And come on—the repopulation and rebuilding of an entire civilization in a generation (which according to you, in order to account for the re-emergence of the post Flood Sumerian culture would have to happen) from a seed stock of six people, two of whom were no longer making babies, beggars credulity. They would be hard pressed to do so in a century. That doesn't even address the question of why they would rebuild a culture that their god presumably considered evil irredeemable rather than a completely different culture based on a monotheistic concept. What, they looked around and said, "Yahweh destroyed all those nasty Marduk worshipers—now we can erect new temples and worship Marduk and his pantheon correctly!" The assumptions for cultural drift you have to make to establish this chronology are amazing. If the account of the Flood were true, then there should have been a Hebrew dominant primary culture all over Asia Minor from 2600 to, well, when? How would the Hittites even have arisen? Explaining all this would entail profound rewrites of a reasonably established history.

    I bet you were a Velikovsky fan at one time.

  7. Tony Coyle says:


    Enough with the flood rant. That topic is closed. Thanks. (I know – I said I wanted more answers, but you just repeat the same old bull. So I retract my unanswered question. Enough is enough)

    Regarding Neutron flux. Again – beating a dead horse. We know that you want half life to be broken. It provides you an opportunity to dismiss a piece of evidence against geologic aging that runs counter to your agenda.

    It's only one piece of evidence out of many. Losing it won't weaken the case appreciably. Whaddya know – it might even strengthen the case. I don't know (and neither do you) so let's wait for findings before we hoist our flag up the pole and claim victory, eh?

    You've said your piece, and I get it. I know where you stand.

    But, if you have something novel or interesting to contribute – please do so. I'm all ears.

  8. Karl says:


    You may call it semantics, I call it a defined tautology as you have said yourself. You either state that your worldview is provided evidence from the methodology of science or you use of the methodology of science because you believe if provides evidence for the worlview you possess. If your values and beliefs and ideas are in anyway supported by what you claim is scientific evidence provided by scientific methodology you are not as free of bias as you believe.

    If you believe the methodology of science enables you to form the least biased worldview you show way to much emotion for that one. Science should be a methodology totally devoid of values if it is to provide clear evidence. Science can not create or establish a philosophical worldview, only a living breathing being can be assumed to have one once they start attaching values judgements to their experiences.

    I will repeat this statement. When science can not determine observable, measurable and repeatable laws and patterns it should recognize that anything it hypothesizes is not yet thoroughly developed science. There are many ideas, beliefs and values that may come from the worldview of a scientist or anyone else for that matter, but that does not make them "scientific."

    Science is a search for actual existing interelatedness. The relatedness may be direct, inverse, exponential or whatever. Science is not an assumption of anything "spontaneous" for the relatedness one is in search of is then assumed to not exist.

    Science predicts and then measures actual relatedness. When something is assumed to not have any identifiable cause besides a random spontaneous one, science is no longer in operation, – ones worldview then searches for evidence to its liking.

    This is why I am content to say I know I am biased and freely attach matters of faith and belief to my language.

    People seem to never be satisfied with not having discovered a primary cause for observations and experiences so when they can't find a cause that fits their liking they look for an accomodating worldview that they can get along with.

    In the case of those who adhere to a supposed scientifically guided, evidence provided worldview they accept that a mathematical model of chance and probabilities can explain away their need to keep searching for that primary cause.

  9. Karl says:


    The Bible says that Noah and clan settled on the plains of Shinar (Sumer)for quite a bit of time with no one moving on until after the events of the Tower of Bable.

    What better place to occupy than a city devoid of people. And yes, they did build or rebuild the ziggarats with intentions of making them as tall as they could.

    Marduk was a local diety name of the Sumerians. Yahweh's name wasn't even around until Moses and the burning bush incident. The "God of the Hebrews" was always referred to as the "God of their forfathers, or the "God of my father so and so" until Moses completes the compliation of the Pentateuch. Then they are told to not even use any name for even common discussion purposes. The them only a reference or title of "Lord" (assumed – their God) was to be the common manner of referering to diety.

  10. Karl writes:—"If any particle(or amount of external energy) of any size can be shown to be the real cause of “natural” spontaneous radioactivity then the half life concept is no longer one that can be defended as being able to reliably return a hard and fast date for the age of unobserved very old rocks."

    Why? All I see here is a possible mechanism to account for an observed phenomenon. It doesn't change the prior observations or discount their accuracy, merely adds a previously undetected process that is part and parcel of what is already established.

    You're reaching for strings here. (Er…straws?)

  11. Karl,

    I know. My point is, what you describe is improbable at best. The shorthand of the postcard (Yahweh, etc) doesn't mean I don't know. It's just…absurd.

  12. p.s.

    "Clan." ? What clan? There was only Noah, his wife, their kids and their wives. A big family, sure, but not a clan.

    And far too small a pool of genetic material for a viable repopulation. There would have been hydrocephalics, morons, doofuses, etc very quickly. First-cousin syndrome would have rendered them all horribly inbred and unstable in a couple of generations.

    Unless this was another "land of Nod" moment.

  13. Tony Coyle says:

    Karl: you are reaching.

    Science is a search for actual existing interelatedness. The relatedness may be direct, inverse, exponential or whatever. Science is not an assumption of anything “spontaneous” for the relatedness one is in search of is then assumed to not exist.

    There is nothing intrinsically mysterious or 'spontaneous' about radioactive decay – the only thing this new finding shows is that the decay is not 'simple' with regards to time — quantum mechanics quite accurately predicts the action of decay – that it does not accurately predict the rate of decay is a lack in our ability so far to marry theory with practice from the quantum to the macro scale.

    Decay happened. It wasn't made up out of whole cloth. that we did not have a detailed understanding of exactly why it happens the way it does is Science. It was a question that was still open to conjecture…

    Decay is only 'mysterious' or 'spontaneous' if you ignore all the research in high-energy physics during the last half century or so (but I don't suppose that's hard if you also ignore or decry any research that fails to fit your particular view of the world).

    Do we know everything? Of course not. (If we did, we'd stop!)

  14. Karl says:

    Mark says -

    "All I see here is a possible mechanism to account for an observed phenomenon. It doesn’t change the prior observations or discount their accuracy."

    You talk as though people were present at the times under consideration to take the observations that are considered so accurate.

    And who was around to tell us what the neutrino flux from the sun was even a 100 years ago let alone several thousands, millions or billions of years ago? Whose to tell us that in the grand scheme of things that our own planet hasn't been making its own internal neutrino flux that has itself varied over the millenia? Who is to tell us that the "narural" half-life of such and such an atom has always been this and only this one specific time frame because we can measure what it is today?

    But then uniformitarian science will say I must be full of confidence and believe that things have always been in the past as they are today and that neutrino flux really only takes us one step removed from the atoms internal spontaniety so that now the suns invariant unchanging ability to keep an average rate of neutrinos flux is what makes us confident to use half-life principles to date objects millions and billions of years old. After all, the reasonable evidence today all backs up the mathematical model that deep time and random chance is all we need to explain the otherwise unexplainable.

    The classic assumption as Dan has pronounced is like most uniformitarian assumptions – that the sun has not changed on average in its neutrino flux output so don't worry that we just had to do a slight of hand movement. As the great Oz would say -pay no attention to that "process" behind the curtain – its not what you are suppose to be focusing your attention on.

    • Tony Coyle says:


      Shut up already. Science is no more uniformitarian than I am a beagle.

      New ideas, please. New comments, please.

      Rehash another old comment and it'll be into the sack for you

  15. Tony writes:—"Do we know everything? Of course not. (If we did, we’d stop!)"

    Ah! Another Dara O'Breahn fan!

    • Tony Coyle says:

      Re our friend Dara and his loyal legion of fans: are there really any other kind of people (excepting those who should be in the sack, of course!)?

  16. Karl says:

    It was a good exchange while it lasted.

  17. Karl,

    Well, I am not a scientist, that's true. And I wasn't there.

    But I do know a little something about building models based on observation. Hydrogen fusion is a fairly known model and we can make mathematically reliable projections (forward and back) based on what we now observe as a consequence of ongoing hydrogen fusion within the sun. Both mass and atomic structure would have to be significantly different to produce the kind of wildly variant models you;re suggesting.

    Not that it couldn't be the case. Who knows? Maybe there's a way in which a star can begin as an iron core and shed complex molecules until it simplifies down to hydrogen, only to start the process in reverse till we get to this point.

    I have some canal-front property on Mars I'm willing to sell at a loss…

    As Tony says, this is one for the sack.

  18. Dan Klarmann says:

    I have always been puzzled by Karl's term "uniformitarian". The article of faith in rationalism is that things are accurately described by established models ("theories") unless proven otherwise. Uniformity of model (consistency) does not mean uniformity of observation (unchanging results). Solar convection models match the 11 year sunspot/flare cycle matches the 11 year climate cycle on Earth.

    We have a very solid model of how the sun is heated, and an understanding of biology, geology, meteorology that all observed data has confirmed. If the neutrino flux had been significantly different (several percent) before we could measure it, then the temperature of the troposphere would have been significantly different (100's of degrees). We can directly measure that this didn't happen because we are here.

    The uniformity of rationalism is not that things don't change; it's that proven models change only by increments. The models we have explain and predict major calamities of climate, and the evidence supports that. The models predict regular catastrophic events, like mass extinctions by extraterrestrial impacts, extrasolar gamma ray bursts, atmospheric changes (sulfur dioxide, oxygen, etc), even regular biological explosions (phages, plagues, spores, and other lifeforms that eliminate many other species in geological eye-blinks).

    The models predict statistical uniformity of radioactive decay rates. The new discovery may show that significantly different distances from the sun (inverse squared AU's) may result in different rates by as much as a percent or so.

    Most isotopes decay way too fast for incoming neutrinos to affect them. They decay in exactly the same way as slow isotopes. Same model. (Table of nuclides)

    • Tony Coyle says:

      Shorter, Dan, would simply be "I've always been puzzled by Karl"…

      Anyway, as you say, this is an incremental refinement to our already robust statistical model of macro-scale decay rates. Karl's continued whining about how this or that or these findings refudiate[sic] TEH EVIL UNIFORMITARIANISTICAL SCIENCE and therefore you must now BELIEVE IN TEH BIBBLE is simply painful. It's like watching a new driver about to make a left turn across the highway. You know they're going too fast. You know they're in the wrong gear. You know they didn't even think to look in the mirror, and they are staring at the speedo to try to make it go down. They might not crash – but it's looking inevitable sometime down the line.

      (I need to edit my comments)

  19. Not to muddy this any further, but I just found this.

    Which seems to say so much about the onslaught of rightwing, Bible-centered, neocon, religio-frantic drivel against science.

    Personally, I believe they all suffer from prebottle lefrontomies.

  20. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark: Great link. I'm adding "Gish Gallop" to my vocabulary:

    The Gish Gallop is an informal name for a rhetorical technique in debates that involves drowning the opponent in half-truths, lies, straw men, and bullshit to such a degree that the opponent cannot possibly answer every falsehood that has been raised, usually resulting in many involuntary twitches in frustration as the opponent struggles to decide where to start. It is named after creationism activist and professional debater Duane Gish.

    Maybe the best defense to the Gish Gallop is running a score card. Every time the galloper is caught misstating a fact, it is noted. If the batting average is too low, you just don't get to play ball. Karl is hitting .180, which means he has relegated himself to the bench.

  21. Tony Coyle says:

    Erich – the Gish Gallop is well known to readers of Pharyngula. It's why PZ now refuses to "debate" creationists.

    Regarding the score card – the approved approach to debating Creationists (live or in comments) is to play Creationist Bingo

    It's a fun game for all the family!

  22. Karl says:

    Dan states,

    "Most isotopes decay way too fast for incoming neutrinos to affect them."

    I wonder if that is testable? Is there some place on earth that we know produces or can focus neutrinos? Better yet, for safety reasons is there somehow we could reduce or lower the neutrino flux through a given region of space and see if half lives are afected?

    Dan has made a pronouncement aka a prediction that neutrinos can't affect short lived decay rates, talk about a prophet in our midst.

    Maybe he should say something like neutrinos wouldn't be able to affect the length of an already short half life to make the change be of any useful consequence for the techniques of extrapolated radioactive isotopic dating.

    • Tony Coyle says:

      Karl is being an ass, again, egregiously blowing any statement out of all proportion.

      Karl — If the huge neutrino flux from a major flare event is capable of making a less than 1% difference in the decay rate of a fairly 'slow' radio-isotope… what kind of difference do you think we'll detect in

      a) extremely short half-life radio-isotopes
      b) extremely long half-life radio-isotopes

      Remember that we reasonably postulate (unless you are Karl and throw the baby out with the bathwater) that the neutrino flux from the sun averages reasonably constant – absent any indication to show otherwise.

      For completeness, you should also calculate the expected effect should the neutrino flux be in a long term cycle, a short term cycle, declining over time (linearly and non-linearly), growing over time (linearly and non-linearly), and combinations of these patterns (e.g. short term cycle overlaid on a long term non-linearly declining flux)

      And Karl — why do you suppose we call these particles 'neutrinos'?
      Is it
      a) because they are exceedingly 'neutral' and affect/are affected hardly at all by normal baryonic matter
      b) because they are named after their founder, 'little Newt Kowalski', or Newt-ino to his friends
      c) because the good names were all taken

      It may have a bearing on the success/failure of the experimental methodology you proposed.

  23. Karl says:


    You were the one who used the off beat title for this thread so choice A can't be entirely correct.

    Maybe we don't have any clear ability to manipulate the direction of any specific paths of neutrinos, but some natural property of matter itself must be able to reflect, absorb or deflect them out of the lines of flux by their seemingly random interactions with atoms themselves.

    How does one detect any of this reflection, absorption or deflection?

    Seems to me that once a specific neutrino which was part of the overall total flux through a specific region was absorbed by an atom that this would reduce the total neutrino flux unless the neutrino during the interaction somehow cloned itself.

    Thus it would seem to me that if we used the densest of known stable matter imaginable like lead 206 and either made or discovered a tremendously thick spherical or rectangular container, we should be able to reduce the flow of neutrinos inside of such a testing area by some appreciable amount.

    This might be a way to see if half-lives are only incidentally affected by neutrino flux.

    This might show us that deep inside of the earth that rocks may consistently be exposed to fewer neutrinos than at the upper layers and surface of the planet, which would explain why many rocks appear to have their half lives "reset" when they come out of the ground.

    If we can't absorb an appreciable significant number of them at the speeds they move at maybe we could find some particles that would slow them down by reducing their velocity during their elastic collisions, like water slows down neutrons.

    This may also explain why different portions of the same rock can have different radioisotopic ages as different portions of a specific rock may stand a better chance of either absorbing or reflecting these neutrinos.

    • Tony Coyle says:

      Karl – see – that was a reasonable proposal – an experiment with some testable hypotheses. I knew you could do it.

      And choice A remains demonstrably correct (for some value of hardly at all) unless you have access to some information or studies denied to me?

  24. Dan Klarmann says:

    Karl, do a little homework before asking really silly questions. You have repeatedly demonstrated over the years that you don't understand the difference between subatomic particles and billiard balls. Please do at least some basic reading about Subatomic particles.

    Neutrinos are slippery: Lead doesn't noticeably absorb them. The 8000 mile thick ball of steel we live on absorbs less than 40% of the ones that hit it. Therefore neutrino detectors are big gadgets, thousands of feet across to sample/detect a tiny fraction of them.

    If you bothered to visit any table of nuclides (as in the link I posted above), you'd see the many short-lived isotopes with which researchers have played. There are shorter lived ones, but only the ones actually measured are on those tables.

    Math: Consider a typical big nucleus of cross section 10<sup>-30</sup> sq. meters. Given the neutrino flux of 6·10<sup>14</sup> neutrinos per square meter per second, we get one neutrino passing through the nucleus every 10<sup>16</sup> seconds. Get a mole of this isotope, and we have 10<sup>8</sup> passing through that mole every second. Now assume that its absorption is as good as steel (~40%/13,000,000 meters) and multiply by the ratio of the nuclear diameter and the Earth's diameter, and you get a chance of 10<sup>8</sup> * 10<sup>-15</sup> / 1.3×10<sup>7</sup> * 0.4 or one atom may interact every ~10<sup>13</sup> seconds per mole. If I'm off by a factor of a million and correct in your favor, then call it one atom per mole per year may decay because of solar neutrino flux.

    Won't noticeably affect decay rates of short-lived isotopes (between microseconds and months).

  25. Tony Coyle says:


    I agree that Karl's experiment isn't necessarily one we could do at the current time (how large would the lead ball need to be?) But at least it would be testable!

    One last point regarding neutrinos – it's currently thought that all the various 'flavors' of neutrino are actually just different 'modes' of the same particles. One key finding (re neutrinos) is that different modes have different penetrative power – so there will be additional complication in trying to define the terms of an experiment to either eliminate the neutrino as cause (leaving a new, unknown particle as the cause?) or to verify the neutrino as the cause (leading to a further refinement of the standard model)

    However, I am not a physicist, so I will simply wait for researchers to announce their findings as they happen.

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