How Scientifically Accurate Is Star Trek?

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. There are a few pop culture franchises that do science quite like Star Trek.


SPEAKER: Space, a final frontier.


IRA FLATOW: Is there a more recognizable opening line on television more iconic than that one? The Star Trek series released in 1966, starring William Shatner as Captain Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Spock. And since then, there have been a dozen shows exploring the Star Trek universe.

Some have been live action. Some animated. But all explore concepts in astrophysics. And when I watch these shows, I love them. I always think how accurate is the science in this franchise? It’s an apt question, for our next guest is going to tell me all about it.

Dr. Erin Macdonald, scientific consultant for the Star Trek franchise. She has a PhD in astrophysics, and she joins us from Los Angeles. Welcome to Science Friday.

ERIN MACDONALD: Hi, Ira. I’m really honored to be here. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: I’m so happy to have you. Tell me a bit about your history as a science consultant for Star Trek. When did that all start? How did you get involved?

ERIN MACDONALD: Yeah. It’s been going back to season three of Star Trek Discovery was when I came on, when they jumped forward to the future. My background, as you mentioned, is in astrophysics, particularly in gravitational waves. I’ve always used science fiction to teach science. And when I left academia, I started giving talks at pop culture conventions, which sort of led me into the entertainment industry.

IRA FLATOW: That’s terrific. We want to get our listeners in on this. Because I know we’re going to melt the phone lines when I give out the phone number. Our number is 844-724-8255, 844-724-8255, to talk about the science that’s in Star Trek, or tweet us @SciFri. Were you always a big Trekker, a Star Trek fan?

ERIN MACDONALD: Yeah. I mean, I wasn’t really exposed to it until I was in college. I was doing my undergraduate degrees in physics and math. And in the Venn diagram of Star Trek fans and physics majors, there’s a big overlap in the middle there.

And so at our sort of college parties, we would watch Next Generation. And that was kind of my first exposure to it, and I fell absolutely in love with it. The big moment for me was when the 2009 Kelvin film came out. That was the night we all graduated.

And so we did our big graduation, and then we went to the midnight premiere, back when those were actually at midnight, and surrounded by Star Trek fans I realized like, these are my people. This is where it’s at.

IRA FLATOW: And how many Star Trek shows are airing at the same time these days?

ERIN MACDONALD: Now, I think we’ve had five going. So there’s a lot– different flavors, as you mentioned. Some are live action. Some are animated. Some are targeted at kids. And what’s great is that they all kind of have different flavors of science, and they all approach their storytelling differently, as Star Trek always has.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So give me an idea of what a day in the life of a science consultant looks like. What kinds of things are you actually doing?

ERIN MACDONALD: Yeah. A lot of it is working directly with the writers and showrunners. And so they’ll reach out to me if they have specific questions. And then I sometimes try to sit about once a week in the writers room itself helping them break ideas, if they have questions in the moment, or come up with story concepts.

I work as a writer. I’m a big fan of science fiction anyway. So being able to help with that process. And then a big part of my job is literally just editing scripts– going through them, and at the very minimum, making sure we don’t say anything wrong– a big job.

IRA FLATOW: What do you mean say anything wrong– for example?

ERIN MACDONALD: For example, like refer to our solar system or a star system as a galaxy. That’s a common mistake that happens in science fiction all the time, and getting those things conflated. Making sure we talk about planets the right way, making sure we talk about nebulas the right way, and that they’re just dust and gas, and all of those little nuances that can sometimes slip by.

IRA FLATOW: One of the central tenets of watching a film, a fiction film, is the willful suspension of your belief, right?


IRA FLATOW: How does that play into what you do, and in Star Trek, in general?

ERIN MACDONALD: Well, I think sometimes– a lot of what I do when I say I don’t want them to say anything wrong, sometimes we’ll have great fun, fantastical storylines that isn’t really rooted in science. And the advice is to just not try to explain it.

Because I think that’s when that suspension of disbelief– when you’re talking about a giant energy being that’s grabbing a hold of the ship, as soon as you start to apply science to it, that’s when you’re going to start to lose people, when if you just let it be, you could just ride the story.

IRA FLATOW: But sometimes over the years, if you wait around long enough, some of the things that you may think are– you need to suspend your belief actually come true. And I’m thinking about all the times we used to watch Captain Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard talk to the computer– like, verbally speak to– like, really? It understands what you’re saying? But now we can do that.

ERIN MACDONALD: We have that indeed. In fact, my own little in-home listening system responds to computers well. Can’t be a Star Trek fan without that. And yeah, I mean this long legacy. Even I remember the original series, x Kirk would video call down to the medical bay. And that seemed so fantastical. And now that’s almost how we live our lives.

IRA FLATOW: Or Hurra would have a little thing in her ear. You can’t have a tiny little receiver in your ear, right?

ERIN MACDONALD: Right. Right. A little wireless receptor– who’d have thought?

IRA FLATOW: Do you have a favorite science plot line you’ve consulted on?

ERIN MACDONALD: Yeah. I mean, there’s been a few. My first one was to do the big story arc for season three, which was called The Burn. And what I was brought on for was to really apply some science to the dilithium, which is a fictional Star Trek element that’s been around since the ’60s, and plays a role in the technology of these starships. And I was able to kind of add on some canonical explanations to it that was really exciting and really special.

And then in that same season, I also consulted on episode five, I believe, where they encounter a coronal mass ejection. And that was the first time that we’ve had one of those in Star Trek before. So that was fun.

IRA FLATOW: That is dilithium crystals. Really? Where do they come– where do they come from? Do we have a history on that?

ERIN MACDONALD: Well, yeah. The first thing I had to establish was is it dilithium or is it dilithium? Because as many Star Trek fans, who are also chemistry majors, will point out that lithium does not allow itself to be combined in such a way. And so we established, nope. It is just called dilithium, and it’s its own thing. I came up with these subatomic particles that tap into subspace to make the story work that way.

IRA FLATOW: You talked about just having to accept things when something big happens. You don’t want to explain it. And I think one of those things that I’ve always wondered about, and we have gotten calls about in the past, is warp speed. How do you how do you survive going to warp speed? The human body can’t really take that kind of acceleration.

ERIN MACDONALD: No. This is true. I mean, the ships do have inertial dampeners, which is kind of the equivalent of seat belts.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, I forgot about that– the intertial dampener.

ERIN MACDONALD: Yeah. Yeah. Because inertia is the thing that’s going to get you, right? But when you do go to warp, the whole concept of warp drive mathematically is really interesting, and it is actually possible. The concept is that you’re building a bubble of space time around your ship.

So on the ship itself, you’re still traveling, I mean, at the speeds they are, much faster than we can conceive of now. But even then, they’re not quite at the speed of light. And then the bubble of space time just carries the ship faster than light. Because in our rules of general relativity, nothing says that spacetime itself can’t go faster than the speed of light. It’s just stuff on the surface of it.

IRA FLATOW: I love that explanation. Let’s go to– I’m going to hit– there are a couple of harder ones on the phone I’m going to get them to ask you. Marti in Ellensburg, Washington. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

AUDIENCE: Hi. Thanks. I’m just wondering, especially since I just got a new knee, are the Borg really possible?

ERIN MACDONALD: Oh, the Borg. Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Tell us what the Borg are, if you will, first.

ERIN MACDONALD: Absolutely. So the Borg is probably something a lot of young Star Trek fans remember is the first thing that gave them nightmares. But it’s essentially a sort of cybernetic species that goes around assimilating different cultures, and they incorporate a lot of technology into their beings.

But the big thing that the Borg have, that was kind of established in Star Trek Voyager in more detail, is these nanoprobes– so these little itty-bitty mechanical devices that swim throughout your bloodstream and coordinate all of the cybernetic implants that you’ve got.

So I don’t think we’re quite there yet. I don’t know if you have to worry about that with your knee quite yet. But it’s certainly interesting. And I think this idea of integrating– it’s really biotechnology– integrating robotics with our bodies– we are not far away from.

IRA FLATOW: Do you ever go in the opposite direction? Do you ever suggest something that they could incorporate into the script that you’re thinking about?

ERIN MACDONALD: Yeah, quite a few times. I mean, I don’t want to take too much credit because these writers, they come up with really, really cool stories.

But like the CME, the Coronal Mass Ejection, that I mentioned, that was a big one where it was like, let’s just have a space disaster. We just want a cool space disaster that’s going to interrupt the transporter. What would be a fun one that we could use with that?

And so then we kind of built the story around it being a coronal mass ejection, which is, for people who aren’t aware, it’s like a solar flare plus. It carries a lot of massive radiation particles, in addition to the kind of normal solar flares that we see.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. A lot of people want to talk to you. Let’s go to Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. I don’t think we’ve ever been there. Jeff, welcome to Science Friday.

AUDIENCE: Hi. Yeah, thanks. I’m reading a series of books now. And they use something called an Alcubierre drive. Supposedly, it’s a real theoretical thing. And I was just wondering is that the same thing as the warp drive?

ERIN MACDONALD: Yeah, absolutely. So the Alcubierre drive was the first major warp drive that was mathematically laid out. And so as I talked about where warp is about building a bubble of spacetime around your ship, the Alcubierre drive takes that concept.

And the key with it– so mathematically, this warp drive, the Alcubierre drive, could work. The issue is the amount of energy required to do it. Because mass bends spacetime– that’s the bowling ball on the trampoline analogy.

If you don’t have that mass to build a warp bubble, you need an equivalent amount of energy, which is times the speed of light squared. So that’s a level of energy we don’t know how to harness yet. So that’s the barrier that’s keeping us from getting there.

IRA FLATOW: You have to keep up with all these things, don’t you?

ERIN MACDONALD: Yeah. And sometimes the writers get to it before I do. A lot of the writers love science. They’re really interested in it. And so I’ll pop into a writers room. And they’ll be like, hey, Erin, tell us about this new black hole finding. And I’ve got to go look it up. And it’s really cool. It’s great to have a team that’s so invested in science as well.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re talking with Erin Macdonald. She’s science consultant for Star Trek. She’s based in Los Angeles. If you’d like to join us, please. You can tweet us– some more tweets coming in– @SciFri. Or you can call us 844-724-8255. We have to take a break. We’ll be right back. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. I’m talking with Dr. Erin Macdonald, science consultant for the Star Trek franchise. She’s based out in Los Angeles, of course. Our number– 844-724-8255 if you’d like to talk to us and ask a question– 844-SCI-TALK.

Dr. Macdonald, do you ever view this as more than just a science fiction thingy, but maybe a teaching experience?

ERIN MACDONALD: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s hard to undersell how influential Star Trek has been on science. It’s been around for, gosh, 60-plus years at this point. And it has influenced and inspired people to become scientists.

And so there is some responsibility to uphold that legacy of inspiring people and getting the science correct. And particularly, with the new show Star Trek Prodigy, which is targeted at kids, a lot of that is actually more of a teaching job and leaning on my teaching background to try to explain difficult concepts to kids, and hopefully inspire them to become scientists.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because it can inspire a lot of people to think about the laws of physics. I mean, seriously. I mean, let me go to, for example, my next caller. Let’s go to Nicholas in New Bedford, Mass. Hi, Nicholas.


IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

AUDIENCE: So in the latest season of Star Trek Discovery, we see the ship go past the edge of our galaxy into another galaxy where the laws of physics seem to differ very greatly. Now, is this some way something theoretical? Is there actually evidence that suggests that in another galaxy, but still in our same universe, there could be very different laws of physics?

ERIN MACDONALD: Understood. Yeah. No, I really appreciate that question. So yeah, in season four of Star Trek Discovery, the crew go past the galactic barrier, which was inspired from all the way back to the original series. And then they enter a what’s actually a star system, where species 10-C lives.

And what the species 10-C has done is they create a bubble that’s almost like a Dyson sphere plus that surrounds the entire star system and is protecting them from the outside. So that was more on the science fiction side. It’s always a bit of a spectrum. But what’s fun about exploring the galactic barrier, because that was more on the legacy of Star Trek, we did actually try to look up if there was any science based on that.

And just really quickly, we do have this thing called the heliopause at the edge of our solar system, where radiation particles from the sun kind of get stopped because they don’t have enough escape velocity to fully escape our solar system and the gravity well of the star.

And I was thinking like, well, what if there’s something similar at the edge of our galaxy, like galactapause, if you will. And actually, since we kind of were coming up with that idea, I did actually see a paper hit the preprint archive on the idea of a galactapause. And so this idea that there is radiation particles.

Now, it’s not so much that the laws of physics in the species 10-C star system had changed, but more that they had created an environment in which they could live and be protected from the exterior intergalactic space.

IRA FLATOW: Very well put. That’s like a master’s thesis right there.

ERIN MACDONALD: [LAUGHS] Sorry. A lot of science in one sitting, I know.

IRA FLATOW: I want to talk about Data. Because Data is, I think, one of the unique things about the Star Trek. Data– for both of you who have been in a cave for decades, Data is an Android. He’s a key star in Star Trek. And his desire to become more human all the time is giving him a personality now less science fiction-like and more science present, do you think?

ERIN MACDONALD: I do think so. And for people who might not be aware, I could recommend– it’s in my top five episodes of Star Trek to watch– is The Measure of a Man from an original series– or from the Next Generation– excuse me– that explores the rights of Data.

And I think watching that with a context now that we have with artificial intelligence, and these great strides that are happening faster than we can keep up with, is even more interesting than it even was back in the day. Because it really forces you to think about the rights of artificial intelligence. And I do think this is a conversation that we’re going to be having for a long time, and it’s going to dominate our culture in the next decade.

IRA FLATOW: Kurt in Fort Dodge Iowa. Hi, Kurt.

AUDIENCE: Yes. Hello.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

AUDIENCE: Well, I was just wondering through all the different shows and the exploration that they represent and everything that they do in the universe, I was just wondering how come you don’t really see a whole lot of exploration or explanation around trying to understand black holes.

ERIN MACDONALD: Oh, that’s a–

IRA FLATOW: You do, but you can’t see it. No, that was a bad joke. I’m sorry.

ERIN MACDONALD: [LAUGHS] Yeah. I mean, we do try to incorporate some of that. I mean, thinking about the history of science. I talked about how science is integrated with Star Trek for so long.

One of the cool things is that in the original series back in the 60s, we still hadn’t detected a black hole. It hadn’t even been coined in the literature. And I think Captain Kirk at one point says that there was like a void of blackness in space. And within a year, the term black hole had been coined in publications, which is about chicken and the egg. We don’t really know which came first with that one.

But we have tried to integrate some, and even with things that we’ve discovered through gravitational waves, we’re starting to build out our pictures of black holes even just better than we knew 10, 15 years ago. And so those start to fold into our stories a little bit more, this idea of roaming black holes. And yeah, obviously, you have to have some visual imagery that’s going to be fun to go with it.

In the recent season, season one of Strange New Worlds, they actually escape an enemy. I won’t spoil it too much, they escape an enemy by utilizing gravitational time dilation and sling-shotting around a black hole. So it’s all about just trying to find the right scientific phenomena that fits the story.

IRA FLATOW: You’re never fearful of going through your wormholes though, right?


IRA FLATOW: Star Trek goes through wormholes a lot.

ERIN MACDONALD: Exactly. In fact, Deep Space Nine was pretty much set at a wormhole. [LAUGHS]

IRA FLATOW: Jerry in Heber Springs, Arkansas. Welcome to Science Friday.

AUDIENCE: Hey. How you doing, Ira?

IRA FLATOW: Hey, there. Go ahead.

AUDIENCE: Hey. So I got just kind of an off-the-wall question. It’s more in personality than technology. But for your guest there, has there ever been anything that was presented by a writer or the staff where you just went, ah, yeah, no. That’s not going to work.

ERIN MACDONALD: [LAUGHS] I appreciate that question. I do think–

IRA FLATOW: Do you have that power [LAUGHS]?

ERIN MACDONALD: Right. I will say I do think it’s important as a science advisor to be a positive force in the room and to not squash people’s dreams and ideas. And so I try to take a “yes and” approach to story ideas that are presented to me. And sometimes it’s more important to just say that’s a really cool idea. Let’s not explain it. Let’s just let that be, and try to adjust as necessary to what we do know in science.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, because Rich in– where is it– Yorba Linda, California, is going to ask about something like that. Go ahead, Rich.

AUDIENCE: Yeah, thanks. My question was how legitimate is the transporter and the replicator. What kind of science do you justify that whole concept?

ERIN MACDONALD: I love– I love the transporter. OK, I’ll make this really brief. So the transporter with our physics knowledge we have now could never work. Because you break down all of the particles of the body down to almost the subatomic particles, and you have to know exactly where they are to put them back together.

And Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which is a physics concept, doesn’t allow that. The more you know about where a particle is, the less you know about the speed it’s going. And then there’s an ultimate Heisenberg limit that you can’t reach.

But in Star Trek– The Next Generation, they’re repairing the transporter at one point, and there’s a Heisenberg compensator.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, wow.

ERIN MACDONALD: And that compensates for Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. And how does the Heisenberg compensator work? It works very well. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: You know what I want to see in Star Trek? I want to see you bring in spooky action at a distance somehow. That would be really fun. One thing happening on one side of the universe being reflected on the other side of the universe in the same way.

ERIN MACDONALD: That would be awesome.

IRA FLATOW: That– yeah. Have you had moments where you’ve actually had to change the science because it’s not working for the story?

ERIN MACDONALD: Yeah. Actually, we did with– in Discovery, there was one time where they were trying to escape– we had the dark matter anomaly, and they were writing the gravitational waves out of it, which is my technical scientific background. And gravitational waves don’t exactly work the way we were visualizing it.

The visuals, as they’re all standing around the table in The Ready Room trying to plan this, were looking like ocean waves. And gravitational waves really look more like sound waves, like compression waves that are happening in multiple dimensions.

And so they tried– to their credit, they tried to image it correctly like gravitational waves look, and it immediately pulled people out. Because you hear wave, and you expect to see something. And so we decided to just leave it looking like an ocean wave because it wasn’t worth the time and explanation it would take to explain to people why it looked that way. They’re just trying to say they’re going to ride the waves out.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. One concept that we’re getting closer to with virtual reality is the Holodeck, right?

ERIN MACDONALD: Yes. Yeah. Oh, my gosh.

IRA FLATOW: Was that one of the original ideas in Star Trek? Did someone in the early years come up with that, or did that trickle down later on?

ERIN MACDONALD: I think it was really more in the next generation is when they explored the Holodeck. And I will say– I mean, I have a virtual reality device, and it does throw you. It is a weird experience, and it does feel like the Holodeck sometimes. And I do think, yeah, we are going to get close to that technology soon.

IRA FLATOW: Jeffrey in Pittsburgh. Welcome to Science Friday. Hi, there. Jeffrey, are you there?

AUDIENCE: Hello. Yeah, I’m sorry. I just had a break in the signal and then your voice. Ira. Ira, Dr. Macdonald, thank you for the very entertaining and interesting conversation. Mine is a comment and then a quick question.

As an emergency physician and somebody that’s old enough to be a fan of the original Star Trek, a medical tricorder was fascinating to me. And as I see patients today in my practice, it occurred to me that with the micronization of sensors, as well as artificial intelligence, machine learning, which I’m getting into and interested in, we’re getting close faster than I think most people realize to an early medical tricorder. And Dr. Macdonald, with your access to the scientists that you talk to, what are your thoughts on that?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Good question. Thanks, doc.

ERIN MACDONALD: Yeah. I mean, you know, what’s interesting is I do think necessity drives invention. And in the last couple of years, we’ve tried to– we’ve been at a place where we’ve had to have more remote medical diagnostic capabilities, where you’re able to diagnose people from a distance or without touching them.

And then also technologies. I mean, I’m wearing a device on my wrist that’s measuring my heart rate, is measuring my pacing and all of those. And so, yes, certainly our technology is getting us there.

And I think even a few years ago– it’s probably close to a decade now– there was an XPRIZE to try to develop a device that could diagnose, I think, it was like five vital signs and diagnosed 12 diseases. And someone did win that. It’s just, at the time, prohibitively large and expensive.

But the technology does exist. And I do think, as you mentioned, the miniaturization of technology will get us there as well, as well as machine learning.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I kind of think that– you touched on this before, a little bit about science education. But I think speaking and talking about these things actually makes some of them happen. I’m thinking of the first flip phone, that Motorola flip phone, was based on Star Trek, wasn’t it?

ERIN MACDONALD: Yeah, absolutely. Everyone wanted to pop open that phone and call the Enterprise. And it drives that. And I– also, the one I think of too, is when we all started getting e-readers. Those were the exact shape and size of the data pads in the next generation.

And you can’t avoid the fact that people are watching this on Star Trek, or any science fiction, and think, I really want that. And then they work toward it, and they end up inventing these things.

IRA FLATOW: Cool. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Comment from Dan on Twitter who says, I teach a first-year college course called Science Fiction, Science Fact, and we watch some episodes of Star Trek- The Next Generation to discuss the importance of science fiction in understanding science. Which episodes would you recommend for teaching science? I love Measure of a Man on Data.

ERIN MACDONALD: Oh, that’s a great question. I think one of the best things– oh, there’s so many good ones– is like the science is so embedded in the DNA of Star Trek that– my personal favorite episode of Star Trek ever is Voyager’s Counterpoint. And that’s where Janeway is trying to discover where a wormhole is going to appear.

And it’s not so much about educating like what a wormhole is, but I think seeing scientists science. And Star Trek does have a lot of that, where there is a scientific problem the crew is faced with, and they approach it as scientists. And that’s something– a role I play, as well as a science advisor, is to advise on what information you need and how you approach problems.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I see the evolution, so to speak, of Star Trek from the Kirk days, where they would settle things by fighting out in the back lot someplace on a cheap set. That’s how they settled things. And then they got more cerebral later, right? But Picard solved everything with his brain. He outsmarted you. He outthought you.

ERIN MACDONALD: Yeah, absolutely. They all have their own little approaches. And you mentioned fighting on the planet with fisticuffs. But in that episode in arena, Spock and McCoy are up watching this fight go on and be like, he’s not going to figure it out. He’s got to do the chemistry. He’s got to do the science, and he eventually figures it out.

IRA FLATOW: If you could move Star Trek in some generation, some direction, I mean, where would you like to see it go?

ERIN MACDONALD: I’ve really enjoyed Prodigy and reframing these classic Star Trek ethos. Like you said, the philosophical, as well as the problem-solving and the scientific to be targeted at kids. And seeing more of that, having these more hard sci-fi shows that are accessible and available to kids, I think, really can influence an entire generation in how they decide to pursue their careers.

IRA FLATOW: Is there a teaching material? I mean, do they make teaching materials out of Star Trek episodes that they could use in school? Maybe they should be doing that.

ERIN MACDONALD: I mean, I’ve heard– I’ve certainly heard a lot of teachers, as the commenter mentioned, who use science fiction. In fact, I did as well. And for Star Trek Prodigy, we also did a series of webisodes that people can watch that was the science of Star Trek Prodigy, where we did short 5, 10-minute explainers of the science in these episodes.

So people can go and find them. They’re where you watch Prodigy, and they’re also available streaming online. Because we do want to find ways to teach through Star Trek. I think it is so effective.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it is. And I guess once you get hooked on Star Trek, you’re hooked.

ERIN MACDONALD: You’re hooked.

IRA FLATOW: You’re hooked. So if you get hooked on– because kids are natural-born scientists. They want to know how everything works. They want to take it all apart. They’ll make mistakes. And you kind of get that vibe from Star Trek, so–

ERIN MACDONALD: Absolutely. Yeah, I agree. We’re all scientists at heart starting out. We problem-solve.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Macdonald, good luck. You have an enviable job, I think.


IRA FLATOW: Dr. Erin Macdonald, Science Consultant for the Star Trek franchise based in Los Angeles. Thank you for taking time and sharing what you know.

ERIN MACDONALD: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.


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