Sir Martin Rees Wins the Templeton Prize

By Sean Carroll | April 6, 2011 9:28 am

The Templeton Prize has to be the most efficient publicity campaign ever. The Templeton Foundation gives a million British pounds to a scientist who is willing to say that science and religion are compatible, and in return they get many times that value in publicity. (The formal citation is “for making an exceptional contribution to investigating life’s spiritual dimension”) Atheists should really just refuse to talk about it, but — can’t resist!

This year’s winner is Sir Martin Rees, one of the world’s leading theoretical astrophysicists. Like everyone else, I have nothing but enormous respect for Sir Martin’s work. He focuses mostly on “physical” cosmology — that part that involves actual known laws of physics, like galaxy formation — but is more willing than most folks in that game to think about speculative ideas concerning the multiverse and the Big Bang. He describes himself as non-religious but church-going, and would rather science and religion just get along than be constantly at each other’s throats. You can read an extremely awkward interview with him by Ian Sample in the Guardian — it’s clear Rees has no interest at all in talking about science/religion issues, but that’s going to come up when you win the Templeton prize.

But the really telling thing is this companion piece at the Guardian‘s website by Mark Vernon. (Another piece by Jerry Coyne provides some balance.) The real problem with the Templeton Foundation, in my view, is that it works very hard to give people a false impression that science and religion are actually reconciling, not just that they should be. If you want to see the publicity machine at work, this piece is a perfect example. Here’s the money paragraph:

But with Rees’s acceptance, the substantial resources of the Templeton Foundation have, in effect, been welcomed at the heart of the British scientific establishment. That such a highly regarded figure has received its premier prize will make it that little bit harder for Dawkins to sustain respect amongst his peers for his crusade against religion.

There you go — now that such a distinguished and respectable scientist has accepted the Templeton Prize, we may conclude that “the British scientific establishment” is rejecting Dawkins and his fellow noisome atheists in favor of warm and fuzzy Templetonianism. That’s exactly the publicity effect they are hoping for.

In unrelated news, Mark Vernon spent time at Cambridge in a journalism fellowship paid for by the Templeton Foundation. Have to hand it to them, these guys know how to get a message out.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society, Top Posts
  • randommuser

    I hope the article by Mark Vernon becomes widely read by the scientific community, including Martin Rees himself and anyone who is hoping to receive the Templeton prize. This should make clear to everyone what the real goal of Templeton Foundation is. Then this may not be such a bad news after all.

  • Alex

    He’s actually Lord Rees now, not Sir Rees.

  • Roberto

    “Have to hand it to them, these guys know how to get a message out.” As we Indians say: “Dont get mad, get even”

  • Katharine

    Let us not forget that one of your co-bloggers works for these yutzes.

    Mooney banned me and a number of others from his blog because of this and apparently does not quite grasp the flaws in his own reasoning.

  • AnotherSean

    Sean: I agree that if the Templeton Foundation is inventing a convergence between science and religion, its a bad thing. But, if indeed, that is their strategy, why would they choose Martin Rees, who will likely say the enterprises are separate forms of inquiry?

  • Sean

    AnotherSean– I can’t speak for why they chose him. He is a churchgoer, and is on the record as disagreeing with Dawkins for being dismissive of religion and Hawking for saying that cosmology has removed the need for God to start the universe. But he also describes himself as non-religious. Regardless, they got what they wanted, as the quote from Vernon above demonstrates.

  • Beep

    Rees’ interview with Ian Sample is a must read, but does not clarify either my two main questions…
    what exactly what it is that Martin has done “for making an exceptional contribution to investigating life’s spiritual dimension”, which then leads to my second question, Why he would accept this award?

  • Pete

    I definitely agree with Vernon and hope that Dawkins and Harris type atheists chill the fuck out. I must say Sean that you’re blog is probably the best that I read and I love the rationality and pro-science attitude that is conveyed here. Too much postmodernist/Idealist/humans-will-never-know/continental philosophy at other blogs like 13.7, and I am totally against that kind of garbage and all for empirical research and common sense thinking. That being said, I think that constantly berating individuals like some in the atheist camp is not the best thing to do. I myself am extremely pro-science but at the same time I do believe in God. You might wonder how that is even rational, and all I can say is that it is indeed the only thing, that I believe without sufficient evidence. The fact of the matter is, as many times as some scientists say that the universe sprang out of a primordial vacuum fluctuation or began without a singularity in imaginary time (ideas that infuriate the shit out of me because there must be reasons for those effects to have been caused), I know that something about existence as a whole, whether it be this universe or some multiverse, is deeply fundamental and, dare I say, spiritual. I’m a huge lover of mathematics, and the fact that mathematics really describes the universe in every way and continues to shows that there is some deep order and pattern to reality. Now this does not mean that God exists, I realize that; hell I always know that there might be no God. But I tend to see the amazing structure of existence as proof of something amazing about reality. There’s no man in the cloud with a beard or Gods with lightning bolts, but there is certainly something going on that we as human beings are able to ascertain, if only partially.

  • Eugene

    The Guardian interview is an instant classic. I love the line about funding of useless things.


    (oh I should also add : Go Cambridge!)

  • Phillip Helbig

    Reaction in the blogosphere has been mixed, even among atheists. Along with your fellow bloggers P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne, you live in the intellectual backwater which is the USA, but I think your more aggressive stance is correct. Taking Templeton money is almost as bad as having your medical research financed by a tobacco concern (which actually happens). Some people, even some I otherwise admire such as Stephen Jay Gould, have gone to great lengths to point out that religion and science are orthogonal, downplay contradictions etc. The fact is that the idea that the Bible is not meant to be taken literally practically didn’t exist until science disputed some of the claims. Religion often makes claims which are directly contradictory to science. It is intellectually dishonest to say that when there is a conflict, the Bible is a metaphor, not meant to be taken literally etc.

    I have to agree with Hitchens when he says that religion poisons everything.

    Yes, the modern-day church in some countries might not be as dangerous as it was a few centuries ago, but ask yourself why that is the case. The immoral power the church held, expressed by literally torturing and killing people who didn’t conform to their ideals, has been reduced thanks to science, the Enlightenment etc. Where that hasn’t happened, the torture continues.

    Yes, I know nice people who are genuinely religious. But to a large extent, these are people, although they wouldn’t admit it, who don’t take their religion seriously in an intellectual sense, though they might in an emotional sense. In other words, they sincerely believe something, but this is a) a subset of what actually constitutes their religion and b) is mostly harmless. Martin Rees, John D. Barrow etc are good scientists and nice people and are sympathetic to the goals of Templeton. Without criticising their science nor their character I think it is fair to say that not being more critical of Templeton does a disservice to science on the whole.

    If science can’t stand up to the woo which is religion, it can’t stand up to the woo which is homeopathy, the idea that vaccinations cause autism, astrology, creationism etc. Reason (which doesn’t exclude morals, emotions or anything which makes life worth living) is the only way forward, otherwise there is the danger that irrationality will decide over our lives and deaths, as it still does in a large part of the world.

    In summary, it is intellectually dishonest to reject only the harmful ideas of religion and keep the harmless bits.

    I also fail to follow the argument that since harmless religious people are better than harmful religious people, we should support the accommodationists. First, there is no reason not to honestly state that it is possible to live a good life without religion. Second, the jump from the religious fundamentalist to the “cultural Christian” type is larger than that between the “cultural Christian” and the honest atheist, so a) they might as well be encouraged to go all the way and b) realistically, very few religious fundamentalists lessen their belief due to whatever reasons. If anything, people who are unsure might be attracted first to “harmless” religion and then drift into fundamentalism.

  • Phillip Helbig

    Real courage would be if someone were to publicly decline the prize and state quite clearly why. Is that too much to ask? Yes, it is a lot of money—a million pounds—but Martin Rees is a millionaire already, as is John Barrow and probably some other winners. (Of course, not all winners are, and of course many have no qualms at all about accepting the prize.) Also, remember that Abba were offered a billion dollars for one album and one tour, and declined. That’s integrity. Nice to put things in perspective. (They feared they wouldn’t live up to the expectations.)

    Another tack would be to accept the money, but donate it ostentatiously to an organisation which helps the victims of organised religion or something similar. Of course, where possible those responsible should pay up and such an action shouldn’t prevent them from doing so, but there are many cases where that is not a realistic possibility and there are many victims of religion which need help they couldn’t otherwise get.

  • David

    The interview to Martin Rees is really embarassing (for him). It’s quite clear that he accepted the prize only for the money. Incidentally, it makes me wonder how the Templeton guys choose the winner, but after the Nobel to Obama, everything is possible I suppose…

  • Phillip Helbig

    “Europe is looking more and more appealing.

    Obama and the Democrats are weak and utter failures. We have tax cuts for the rich so Obama is “forced” to cut programs for the poor and cut science. The one billion the US spent in a week for Libya would have paid for LISA.”

    In all honesty, the Republicans don’t have the better track record for funding fundamental research. Also, keep in mind that now that he doesn’t have a majority in both houses of Congress, one can’t pin everything one doesn’t like on Obama. In particular, the “tax cuts for the rich” smell more Republican.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Pete #8: I myself am extremely pro-science but at the same time I do believe in God. You might wonder how that is even rational…

    No, I do not wonder how that is rational, since you have not demonstrated that it is. Unless you are claiming that if you believe something it must be rational.(?)

  • Sean Gallacher

    What about the authors of two new Atheist Bibles to win next year’s Templeton Prize. We could only give it to the author of one of them because the other does not have an author.

    The specific nature of these two Atheist Bibles and the fact that you will not find a strident word in either means that given this year’s award, this is not as outrageous an idea as it sounds on its face.

    The Good Book is by AC Grayling and 21st Century Testament has no author.

  • The Cosmist

    Phillip Helbig, I agree with everything you’re saying about the importance of rationality, science, Enlightenment values and the danger of religion. My confusion is this: when I look around the world, I see countries where such things are valued tending toward demographic extinction. It’s not difficult to see that if current trends continue we are headed into a new global Dark Age. It confuses me because if they really believe in a Darwinian world, why are secularists essentially committing suicide, and in what sense are their societies the civilizations of the future?

    I would like to see a much more aggressive form of modernity which uses its science and technology to *dominate* the genetic/memetic pool globally, rather than to continue on its current suicidal path. I don’t hear this point of view expressed by scientists very often, but to me it is an obvious point of cognitive dissonance that needs addressing. The power of culture, religion and simple fecundity are *immense* and aren’t defeated by rational arguments. Enlightenment requires *war*, *evangelism* and *aggressive reproduction* to beat back the forces of darkness! Do you have any thoughts on this issue?

  • The Cosmist

    That Martin Rees interview is absolutely wretched! What is one to think of someone who is unwilling to voice any opinion whatsoever on any topic that might be remotely controversial? This is the opposite of intellectual leadership and a good illustration of why this kind of spineless modernity has no future. The militantly religious eat people like this for breakfast, lunch and dinner! I agree 100% with Dawkins’ description of Rees as a “compliant quisling”.

  • George Djorgovski

    While I share most of the sentiments expressed above, and my views of the Templeton F’n are very similar to Sean’s, let me say a couple of things in Martin’s defense:

    (1) By the virtue of his position, he is not only a scientist, but also a politician, and he probably serves as a significant positive force for science in the UK establishment. In that context, his acceptance, rather than a rejection of the prize would likely strengthen rather than weaken his positive influence. He presumably judged this to outweigh the harm done by implicitly endorsing the foundation’s goals. It is easy to be a purist on a purely academic level, but none of us are in his shoes.

    (2) He was perfectly honest about not being religious, and going to a church just as a social obligation and to enjoy the music. He is very clearly not endorsing religion. That in itself is a significant statement from someone like himself. Perhaps the p.r. value the Templeton F’n is getting is a bit mixed here.

    Mind you, I am defending Martin here, not the Templeton F’n. On that account, it seems that most of us are in a good agreement.

  • Andy Lawrence

    Phillip (Helbig) – this must be an important issue, as you have put identical comments on this blog and mine … I just don’t feel so special now…

    Anyhoo. For what its worth, I think I have discovered I am an “accomodationist”. I was most impressed by Martin’s pragmatic point that if you tell people “God or Darwin ! You must choose !” then they might well choose God. Then you’ve blown it.

  • Lord

    It would probably be more productive if the Templeton prize went to the most prominent religious figure that promoted their compatibility but this way at least the money may be better spent.

  • Jim Harrison

    Templeton has simply followed the precedent of the Counter Reformation. Once the Catholics realized that burning heretics at the stake wasn’t going to cut it and began to make it lucrative to reconvert, they began to make progress.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “Phillip (Helbig) – this must be an important issue, as you have put identical comments on this blog and mine … I just don’t feel so special now…

    Anyhoo. For what its worth, I think I have discovered I am an “accomodationist”. I was most impressed by Martin’s pragmatic point that if you tell people “God or Darwin ! You must choose !” then they might well choose God. Then you’ve blown it.”

    Not everyone reads the same blogs!

    I don’t agree with this argument. First, the fundamentalist mind rarely, if ever, would see accomodation as an option. Also, fundamentalists who change their mind (though there aren’t many of them) usually don’t become accomodationists but atheists. Second, why not just say “Darwin”, “science has no need of the God hypothesis” etc? Most accomodationists have probably heard this and still choose to be accomodationists. Third, it can be used to justify anything: Talking to an Islamic extremist immigrant, say, one could make the argument that he should refrain from killing people but could still beat his wives, say, since if we offer the alternatives “respect all our laws, or respect none of them” he might choose to respect none of them. Stuff like this has actually happened, in that courts have been more lenient with religiously motivated crime out of fear of alienating the defendants completely.

    “My confusion is this: when I look around the world, I see countries where such things are valued tending toward demographic extinction.”

    If you are referring to the fact that, speaking very generally, the birth rate tends to be lower in more civilised countries, then clearly the answer has to be to civilise the uncivilised countries, not to increase the birthrate where it has decreased, otherwise Malthus’s Law will kill us all end the end. (There are a variety of reasons why the birthrate is lower in more civilised countries. Of course, in some cases it is too low, but that can and should be corrected.) I once heard someone from a civilised country make a similar comment then I asked how many children he had, to which he had to reply “none”. Practice what you preach! I’m doing my part with 2 children from 2 wives and a third (child, not wife) on the way!

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  • Gordon

    They picked him because he IS the British Scientific Establishment and they now can associate themselves with that establishment and claim one of its most rewarded members as its ally.
    The problem with accomodationists is that they give validation to something that they really do not believe in, but will not say so due to political correctness and misplaced manners. The silliest essay Stephen J. Gould ever wrote was his Two Magisteria essay about Science and Religion. He should have said one is an honest attempt to describe and explain Reality, and the other is superstitious delusion. The Vernon essay on the Templeton site should show Lord Rees how he will be used .
    Katherine–yes I agree with you about Mooney, even if Jennifer O defends him.

  • Aleksandar Mikovic

    The funniest thing is that the most radical proponents of the clash between science and religion do not understand mathematics nor quantum mechanics (the reason is that they are biologists or journalists). If they understood that in quantum mechanics the classical logic does not apply, i.e. there is no rule of the exclusion of the third, then they would be more careful when insisting on that science contradicts the religious claims. And this is what Martin Reese is essentially saying – science indicates that the reality is more complicated than what the extremist atheists are suggesting.

  • cretan?

    Hello Sean. I resisted posting a comment here for a few years but today I cannot resist anymore.

    It is utterly unfair to critisise Martin for his honest Victorian agnosticisim which compared to the Talibanistic (and naive, lets be honest) new-atheism of people like Dawkins sounds almost pro-religion.

    Just compare Martin with Steven (Hawking). Martin is super-moderate and serious. People who know the Cambridge intellectia well (like me and perhaps Mark Trodden who took Part III with me), know that most people laugh with Steven’s (Hawkings) moving circus and his convenient endorsements of various scientific garbage (the latest being notable the multiverse and new-atheism) just because it pays them their coffee and cookies (50.000 pounds I am told!).

    ..and if I am allowed an educated comment here: someone said that reality is something that you can’t get rid of however hard you try. The human thirst for religion and belief in something transcendental is one such very real thing – much more real that extra dimensions, the multiverse and Lorentz by your “aether” – dear Sean. I am afraid you are in negation all this time. Remember, it is reality we are after; and belief in human beings is certainly part of our reality!

    (btw the “aether” thing could be an interesting phenomenological idea if it could be consistently combined with compactification since it changes the spacing of KK modes and hence modifies the effective potential i.e. it is not simply a theta-function anymore and perhaps could relax the size of extra dimensions – I had a student looking at it but did not go very far..)

  • Matthew Saunders

    Sir Martin Rees has quite the dry, impish sense of humour and I’m sorry that interviewer didn’t seem to ‘get it’ (or maybe they did — remember, it IS text and was edited). We all will find things there that fit in with our worldviews, which is as it should be, but our analyzes of it will always be our choice.

    About the “Religion vs. Science” thing…*chuckle* On my boilerplate of my blog, I have a quote by the great American writer Tom Robbins. It says:

    “…the notion that inspired play (even when audacious, offensive, or obscene) enhances rather than diminishes intellectual vigor and spiritual fulfillment, the notion that in the eyes of the gods the tight-lipped hero and the wet-cheeked victim are frequently inferior to the red-nosed clown, such notions are destined to be a hard sell to those who have E.M. Forster on their bedside table and a clump of dried narcissus up their ass. Not to worry. As long as words and ideas exist, there will be a few misfits who will cavort with them in a spirit of approfondement–if I may borrow that marvelous French word that translates roughly as “playing easily in the deep”–and in so doing they will occasionally bring to realization Kafka’s belief that “a novel should be an ax for the frozen seas around us.”

    There will always be people who forget that life is a ride, that we’re all here to play well with others, that get so stuck in their own worldview that they believe the furrows on their brows are real and their anxious sweats are true. I see religion as art; there are lots of things that are irrational and not based on evidence; I believe we need the irrational to help keep sane (poetry, koans, asthetics, etc etc).

    Einstein had it right and people should stop following the minority of people who have lost sight of their sense of play and gotten all solemn.

    (in fact, I think one of the reasons for all this fundamentalist hurt going on around the world IS because of a lack of humour/too much solemnity — so many people getting hurt and dying for a non-existent punchline)

  • Gordon

    cretan (?cretin) “Remember, it is reality we are after…” Really? Which reality? The reality of understanding what makes the Universe tick, its constituents, how it works, or the social construct reality of human beings that includes superstition, tribalism, and religious delusion?
    The quote about reality is mangled–it is actually ” Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”–
    Philip K. Dick, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”, 1978
    That could be modified to ” that which when you believe something without evidence doesn’t change the underlying reality, just propagates stupidity.”
    I do agree though that Martin is a serious scientist and has every right to accept the award, and that Dawkins was rude and out of place calling him a compliant quisling (not about this award) The problem is the reflected validation that the Templeton God group get from the association.
    Aleksander–you are wrong. Steven Weinberg certainly understands quantum mechanics probably better than virtually anyone. Biologists do seem the most vocal, but they are hardly the only vocal atheists. Stephen Hawking understands QM, as does Lawrence Krauss, as does Sean…there are many, many more.
    And what is this “new atheist” crap. Somehow new atheists are Talibanistic, rude, aggressive—new atheists are old atheists. Read John Stuart Mill. Somehow it is considered rude to point out flaws in religious reasoning. Virtually nothing else gets a free ride from criticism—certainly not atheism, particularly in the U.S. where proclaiming you are an atheist (ie a rational being) will totally eliminate you from running in or certainly winning any election to office, while constantly referring to how close to God you are is considered a necessity and in certain States, throw in a speaking in tongues along with a Rapture.

  • cretan?


    To conveniently disentangle the different constituents of reality (e.g. the elementary particles on one side and human behavior on the other) and call one part “the reality” and the other “delusion”, is simply negation. Last time I checked, humans are part of the Universe (.. or the multiverse for the loonies..) Honest scientist do not do so (and also do not call the others cretins without prior investigations.) Thanks for reminding the name of P. Dick – that quote makes my point even stronger.

    Nevertheless, I sympathise with you Americans that have to live with neo-cons, creationists and a million others weirdos. I then understand some of your naive new-atheism as a natural reaction to those crazy people carrying the cross and the gun with the same hand. Well, you will mature eventually..

    Btw, S.Weinberg does not really understand QM better than anyone ( just ask M. Veltman about it), but even if he did, we all make mistakes when we try to talk about things we dont practice. He would better keep calculating (wrongly, I am afraid..) the tensor perturbations and leave philosophical issues for the professionals.

  • Aleksandar Mikovic

    Dear Gordon,
    Richard Feynman said that nobody understands quantum mechanics, and people like Weinberg and other particle physicist understand QM at the technical level, i.e. how to calculate scattering amplitudes and effective actions. However if you ask more fundamental questions like is the electron particle or a wave or what happens when a wavefunction collapses, Weinberg and company have nothing to say – or they might say “shut up and calculate”. From my research experience it is clear to me that the nature of reality is more complex and that it cannot be reduced to a theory of everything. Superstring theory cannot explain everything.

  • Alan

    Martin Rees made these comments in 2003 (which some here may know of):

    “The possibility that we are creations of some supreme, or super-being, blurs the boundary between physics and idealist philosophy.”

    He recently said also that Stephen Hawking was theologically/philosophically naive so I think this keeps other options on the table apart from the universe being meaningless.
    Although he is not traditionally religious, perhaps his comments above about “some supreme, or super-being” aren’t actually religious at all but fit in with physics somehow.

    I am also quite interested in the fact that he has used the concept of the Ouroboros in one of his talks as has his colleague Prof. Bernard Carr, the cosmologist, who is trying presently to bridge the gap between mind and matter in his own studies.

  • Peter Coles

    For what it’s worth, as an atheist and a physicist, I feel obliged to saythat I have no problem whatsoever with Martin Rees winning the Templeton Prize. I think dialogue between religion and science – and between many other things – is a profoundly good thing.

    It’s interesting to observe that recent winners of this prize – John Barrow (my PhD supervisor, in fact), George Ellis, Paul Davies, John Polkinghorne and Martin Rees all established their scientific reputations working in the United Kingdom. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think over here religious fundamentalism is far less prominent than in the United States, and religion plays a much smaller part in our political and cultural life. It took centuries of strife to get to this position, of course, but this does seem to have led to more reasoned dialogue between believers and non-believers.

    I think that science and religion are basically orthogonal activities and there’s nothing to be gained by setting them in opposition. Sean’s post conveys the impression that the Templeton Foundation is some kind of evil conspiracy. I don’t see it that way at all. My own lack of belief does not diminish my respect for, and indeed interest in, the faith expressed by others. Dialogue is always better than conflict.

    P.S. If there’s anyone from the Templeton Foundation reading this, please make next year’s cheque out to “Professor Peter Coles”.

  • Mr. G

    I agree with Peter Coles. I’m an atheist invested in Templeton World Fund.

    They make me money. We don’t have to agree on anything else.

    I disagree with Peter Coles. Indigenous religous fundamentalism in the US is anymore a very minor concern of mine.

    I’m more inclined to concern over the cultism of fellow atheists; increasingly ever more indistinguishable from organized anarchists.

  • Peter Coles

    ps. Actually it’s Lord Rees these days, not merely “Sir Martin Rees”…

  • Kevin Osborne

    If one is to understand this place all is fair game. A decision that something is accurate and something else is not will not lead toward full understanding because everything exists as a viewpoint of something. It is a perceived reality and is always accurate within that viewpoint. There is simply always MORE right, more information, more viewpoint to see. That goes for all of us. My opinion.

  • Mr. G


    Within the local horizon, absolute truth is approximately what some agree that it actually is, even as others that agree that it’s actually not.

    Mostly it’s populist truth here, after the actual science is offered by learned peers with personal agendas.

  • Caledonian

    someone said that reality is something that you can’t get rid of however hard you try.

    “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” – Philip K. Dick

  • Caledonian

    I like to think that this helps the cause of reason. Every time that someone points out that the religious have to offer bribes to get some scientists to praise them, we win a little bit more.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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