Democritus (/dɪˈmɒkrɪtəs/; Greek: Δημόκριτος,
Dēmókritos, meaning "chosen of the people"; c. 460 – c. 370 BC)
Ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher primarily remembered
today for his formulation of an atomic theory of the universe.
Democritus was born in Abdera, Thrace, around 460 BC, although
some thought it was 490 BC. His exact contributions are difficult to
disentangle from those of his mentor Leucippus, as they are often
mentioned together in texts. Their speculation on atoms, taken from
Leucippus, bears a passing and partial resemblance to the 19th-century
understanding of atomic structure that has led some to regard
Democritus as more of a scientist than other Greek philosophers;
however, their ideas rested on very different bases. Largely
ignored in ancient Athens,
Democritus is said to have been disliked so
Plato that the latter wished all of his books burned. He
was nevertheless well known to his fellow northern-born philosopher
Aristotle. Many consider
Democritus to be the "father of modern
science". None of his writings have survived; only fragments are
known from his vast body of work.
Philosophy and science
2.2 Atomic hypothesis
2.3 Void hypothesis
2.5 Ethics and politics
2.7 Anthropology, biology, and cosmology
3 Twentieth-century appraisals
5 Eponymous institutions
7 See also
11 Further reading
12 External links
Democritus by Hendrick ter Brugghen, 1628
Rembrandt, The Young
Democritus the Laughing Philosopher
Democritus was said to be born in the city of Abdera in Thrace, an
Ionian colony of Teos, although some called him a Milesian. He
was born in the 80th
Olympiad (460–457 BC) according to
Apollodorus of Athens, and although Thrasyllus placed his birth in
470 BC, the later date is probably more likely. John Burnet
has argued that the date of 460 is "too early" since, according to
Diogenes Laërtius ix.41,
Democritus said that he was a "young man
(neos)" during Anaxagoras's old age (c. 440–428). It was
said that Democritus's father was from a noble family and so wealthy
that he received Xerxes on his march through Abdera.
the inheritance which his father left him on travels into distant
countries, to satisfy his thirst for knowledge. He traveled to Asia,
and was even said to have reached India and Ethiopia.
It is known that he wrote on
Babylon and Meroe; he visited Egypt, and
Diodorus Siculus states that he lived there for five years. He
himself declared that among his contemporaries none had made
greater journeys, seen more countries, and met more scholars than
himself. He particularly mentions the Egyptian mathematicians, whose
knowledge he praises. Theophrastus, too, spoke of him as a man who had
seen many countries. During his travels, according to Diogenes
Laërtius, he became acquainted with the Chaldean magi. "Ostanes", one
of the magi accompanying Xerxes, was also said to have taught him.
After returning to his native land he occupied himself with natural
philosophy. He traveled throughout Greece to acquire a better
knowledge of its cultures. He mentions many Greek philosophers in his
writings, and his wealth enabled him to purchase their writings.
Leucippus, the founder of atomism, was the greatest influence upon
him. He also praises Anaxagoras. Diogenes Laertius says that he
was friends with Hippocrates. He may have been acquainted with
Plato does not mention him and
Democritus himself is
quoted as saying, "I came to Athens and no one knew me." Aristotle
placed him among the pre-Socratic natural philosophers.
The many anecdotes about Democritus, especially in Diogenes Laërtius,
attest to his disinterest, modesty, and simplicity, and show that he
lived exclusively for his studies. One story has him deliberately
blinding himself in order to be less disturbed in his pursuits; it
may well be true that he lost his sight in old age. He was cheerful,
and was always ready to see the comical side of life, which later
writers took to mean that he always laughed at the foolishness of
He was highly esteemed by his fellow citizens, because as Diogenes
Laërtius says, "he had foretold them some things which events proved
to be true," which may refer to his knowledge of natural phenomena.
According to Diodorus Siculus,
Democritus died at the age of 90,
which would put his death around 370 BC, but other writers have
him living to 104, or even 109.
Popularly known as the Laughing Philosopher (for laughing at human
follies), the terms Abderitan laughter, which means scoffing,
incessant laughter, and Abderite, which means a scoffer, are derived
from Democritus. To his fellow citizens he was also known as "The
Philosophy and science
Democritus meditating on the seat of the soul
Democritus meditating on the seat of the soul by Léon-Alexandre
Most sources say that
Democritus followed in the tradition of
Leucippus and that they carried on the scientific rationalist
philosophy associated with Miletus. Both were thoroughly materialist,
believing everything to be the result of natural laws. Unlike
Aristotle or Plato, the atomists attempted to explain the world
without reasoning as to purpose, prime mover, or final cause. For the
atomists questions of physics should be answered with a mechanistic
explanation ("What earlier circumstances caused this event?"), while
their opponents search for explanations which, in addition to the
material and mechanistic, also included the formal and teleological
("What purpose did this event serve?").
Later Greek historians consider
Democritus to have established
aesthetics as a subject of investigation and study, as he wrote
theoretically on poetry and fine art long before authors such as
Aristotle. Specifically, Thrasyllus identified six works in the
philosopher's oeuvre which had belonged to aesthetics as a discipline,
but only fragments of the relevant works are extant; hence of all
Democritus's writings on these matters, only a small percentage of his
thoughts and ideas can be known.
See also: Atomism
The theory of
Democritus held that everything is composed of "atoms",
which are physically, but not geometrically, indivisible; that between
atoms, there lies empty space; that atoms are indestructible, and have
always been and always will be in motion; that there is an infinite
number of atoms and of kinds of atoms, which differ in shape and size.
Of the mass of atoms,
Democritus said, "The more any indivisible
exceeds, the heavier it is". But his exact position on atomic weight
Leucippus is widely credited with having been the first to develop the
theory of atomism, although
Isaac Newton preferred to credit the
Mochus the Phoenician (whom he believed to be the biblical
Moses) as the inventor of the idea on the authority of
Strabo. The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy notes, "This
theologically motivated view does not seem to claim much historical
Democritus, along with
Leucippus and Epicurus, proposed the earliest
views on the shapes and connectivity of atoms. They reasoned that the
solidness of the material corresponded to the shape of the atoms
involved. Thus, iron atoms are solid and strong with hooks that lock
them into a solid; water atoms are smooth and slippery; salt atoms,
because of their taste, are sharp and pointed; and air atoms are light
and whirling, pervading all other materials. Using analogies from
humans' sense experiences, he gave a picture or an image of an atom
that distinguished them from each other by their shape, their size,
and the arrangement of their parts. Moreover, connections were
explained by material links in which single atoms were supplied with
attachments: some with hooks and eyes others with balls and
sockets. The Democritean atom is an inert solid (merely excluding
other bodies from its volume) that interacts with other atoms
mechanically. In contrast, modern, quantum-mechanical atoms interact
via electric and magnetic force fields and are far from inert.
The theory of the atomists appears to be more nearly aligned with that
of modern science than any other theory of antiquity. However, the
similarity with modern concepts of science can be confusing when
trying to understand where the hypothesis came from. It is obvious
that classical atomists would never have had a solid empirical basis
for modern concepts of atoms and molecules.
However, Lucretius, describing atomism in his De rerum natura, gives
very clear and compelling empirical arguments for the original atomist
theory. He observes that any material is subject to irreversible
decay. Through time, even hard rocks are slowly worn down by drops of
water. Things have the tendency to get mixed up: Mix water with soil
and mud will result, seldom disintegrating by itself. Wood decays.
However, there are mechanisms in nature and technology to recreate
"pure" materials like water, air, and metals. The
seed of an oak will grow out into an oak tree, made of similar wood as
historical oak trees, the wood of which has already decayed. The
conclusion is that many properties of materials must derive from
something inside, that will itself never decay, something that stores
for eternity the same inherent, indivisible properties. The basic
question is: Why has everything in the world not yet decayed, and how
can exactly some of the same materials, plants, and animals be
recreated again and again? One obvious solution to explain how
indivisible properties can be conveyed in a way not easily visible to
human senses, is to hypothesize the existence of "atoms". These
classical "atoms" are nearer to humans' modern concept of "molecule"
than to the atoms of modern science. The other central point of
classical atomism is that there must be considerable open space
between these "atoms": the void.
Lucretius gives reasonable
arguments that the void is absolutely necessary to
explain how gasses and liquids can flow and change shape, while metals
can be molded without their basic material properties changing.
The atomistic void hypothesis was a response to the paradoxes of
Parmenides and Zeno, the founders of metaphysical logic, who put forth
difficult to answer arguments in favor of the idea that there can be
no movement. They held that any movement would require a void—which
is nothing—but a nothing cannot exist. The Parmenidean position was
"You say there is a void; therefore the void is not nothing; therefore
there is not the void". The position of
validated by the observation that where there seems to be nothing
there is air, and indeed even where there is not matter there is
something, for instance light waves.
The atomists agreed that motion required a void, but simply ignored
the argument of
Parmenides on the grounds that motion was an
observable fact. Therefore, they asserted, there must be a void. This
idea survived in a refined version as Newton's theory of absolute
space, which met the logical requirements of attributing reality to
not-being. Einstein's theory of relativity provided a new answer to
Parmenides and Zeno, with the insight that space by itself is relative
and cannot be separated from time as part of a generally curved
space-time manifold. Consequently, Newton's refinement is now
Democritus by Luca Giordano (c. 1690).
The knowledge of truth, according to Democritus, is difficult, since
the perception through the senses is subjective. As from the same
senses derive different impressions for each individual, then through
the sensual impressions we cannot judge the truth. We can interpret
the senses' data only through the intellect and grasp the truth,
because the truth is at the bottom:
And again, many of the other animals receive impressions contrary to
ours; and even to the senses of each individual, things do not always
seem the same. Which then, of these impressions are true and which are
false is not obvious; for the one set is no more true than the other,
but both are alike. And this is why Democritus, at any rate, says that
either there is no truth or to us at least it is not evident.
Democritus says: By convention hot, by convention cold, but in reality
atoms and void, and also in reality we know nothing, since the truth
is at bottom.
There are two kinds of knowing, the one he calls "legitimate"
(γνησίη, gnēsiē, "genuine") and the other "bastard"
(σκοτίη, skotiē, "secret"). The "bastard" knowledge is
concerned with the perception through the senses; therefore it is
insufficient and subjective. The reason is that the sensual perception
is due to the effluences of the atoms from the objects to the senses.
When these different shapes of atoms come to us, they stimulate our
senses according to their shape, and our sensual impressions arise
from those stimulations.
The second sort of knowledge, the "legitimate" one, can be achieved
through the intellect, in other words, all the sense data from the
"bastard" must be elaborated through reasoning. In this way one can
get away from the false perception of the "bastard" knowledge and
grasp the truth through the inductive reasoning. After taking into
account the sense impressions, one can examine the causes of the
appearances, draw conclusions about the laws that govern the
appearances, and discover the causality (αἰτιολογία,
aetiologia) by which they are related. This is the procedure of
thought from the parts to the whole or else from the apparent to
nonapparent (inductive reasoning). This is one example of why
Democritus is considered to be an early scientific thinker. The
process is reminiscent of that by which science gathers its
But in the Canons
Democritus says there are two kinds of knowing, one
through the senses and the other through the intellect. Of these he
calls the one through the intellect 'legitimate' attesting its
trustworthiness for the judgment of truth, and through the senses he
names 'bastard' denying its inerrancy in the discrimination of what is
true. To quote his actual words: Of knowledge there are two forms, one
legitimate, one bastard. To the bastard belong all this group: sight,
hearing, smell, taste, touch. The other is legitimate and separate
from that. Then, preferring the legitimate to the bastard, he
continues: When the bastard can no longer see any smaller, or hear, or
smell, or taste, or perceive by touch, but finer matters have to be
examined, then comes the legitimate, since it has a finer organ of
In the Confirmations ... he says: But we in actuality grasp nothing
for certain, but what shifts in accordance with the condition of the
body and of the things (atoms) which enter it and press upon it.
As well as:
Democritus used to say that 'he prefers to discover a causality rather
than become a king of Persia'.
Ethics and politics
Heraclitus and laughing Democritus, from a 1477 Italian fresco,
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.
The ethics and politics of
Democritus come to us mostly in the form of
maxims. As such, the Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy has gone as
far as to say that: "despite the large number of ethical sayings, it
is difficult to construct a coherent account of Democritus's ethical
views" and noting that there is a "difficulty of deciding which
fragments are genuinely Democritean".
He says that "Equality is everywhere noble", but he is not
encompassing enough to include women or slaves in this sentiment.
Poverty in a democracy is better than prosperity under tyrants, for
the same reason one is to prefer liberty over slavery. In his History
of Western Philosophy,
Bertrand Russell writes that
Democritus was in
love with "what the Greeks called democracy."
Democritus said that
"the wise man belongs to all countries, for the home of a great soul
is the whole world."
Democritus wrote that those in power should
"take it upon themselves to lend to the poor and to aid them and to
favor them, then is there pity and no isolation but companionship and
mutual defense and concord among the citizens and other good things
too many to catalogue". Money when used with sense leads to generosity
and charity, while money used in folly leads to a common expense for
the whole society—excessive hoarding of money for one's children is
avarice. While making money is not useless, he says, doing so as a
result of wrongdoing is the "worst of all things". He is on the whole
ambivalent towards wealth, and values it much less than
self-sufficiency. He disliked violence but was not a pacifist: he
urged cities to be prepared for war, and believed that a society had
the right to execute a criminal or enemy so long as this did not
violate some law, treaty, or oath.
Goodness, he believed, came more from practice and discipline than
from innate human nature. He believed that one should distance oneself
from the wicked, stating that such association increases disposition
to vice. Anger, while difficult to control, must be mastered in order
for one to be rational. Those who take pleasure from the disasters of
their neighbors fail to understand that their fortunes are tied to the
society in which they live, and they rob themselves of any joy of
Democritus believed that happiness was a property of the
soul. He advocated a life of contentment with as little grief as
possible, which he said could not be achieved through either idleness
or preoccupation with worldly pleasures. Contentment would be gained,
he said, through moderation and a measured life; to be content one
must set their judgment on the possible and be satisfied with what one
has—giving little thought to envy or admiration.
of extravagance on occasion, as he held that feasts and celebrations
were necessary for joy and relaxation. He considers education to be
the noblest of pursuits, but cautioned that learning without sense
leads to error.
Right circular and oblique circular cones
Democritus was also a pioneer of mathematics and geometry in
particular. We only know this through citations of his works (titled
On Numbers, On Geometrics, On Tangencies, On Mapping, and On
Irrationals) in other writings, since most of Democritus's body of
work did not survive the Middle Ages.
Democritus was among the first
to observe that a cone or pyramid has one-third the volume of a
cylinder or prism respectively with the same base and height.
Anthropology, biology, and cosmology
His work on nature is known through citations of his books on the
subjects, On the Nature of Man, On Flesh (two books), On Mind, On the
Senses, On Flavors, On Colors, Causes concerned with Seeds and Plants
and Fruits, and Causes concerned with Animals (three books). He
spent much of his life experimenting with and examining plants and
minerals, and wrote at length on many scientific topics.
Democritus thought that the first humans lived an anarchic and animal
sort of life, going out to forage individually and living off the most
palatable herbs and the fruit which grew wild on the trees. They were
driven together into societies for fear of wild animals, he said. He
believed that these early people had no language, but that they
gradually began to articulate their expressions, establishing symbols
for every sort of object, and in this manner came to understand each
other. He says that the earliest men lived laboriously, having none of
the utilities of life; clothing, houses, fire, domestication, and
farming were unknown to them.
Democritus presents the early period of
mankind as one of learning by trial and error, and says that each step
slowly led to more discoveries; they took refuge in the caves in
winter, stored fruits that could be preserved, and through reason and
keenness of mind came to build upon each new idea.
Democritus held that originally the universe was composed of nothing
but tiny atoms churning in chaos, until they collided together to form
larger units—including the earth and everything on it. He
surmised that there are many worlds, some growing, some decaying; some
with no sun or moon, some with several. He held that every world has a
beginning and an end and that a world could be destroyed by collision
with another world. To epitomize Democritus's cosmology, Russell calls
on Shelley: "Worlds on worlds are rolling ever / From creation to
decay, / Like the bubbles on a river / Sparkling, bursting, borne
According to Bertrand Russell, the point of view of
Democritus "was remarkably like that of modern science, and avoided
most of the faults to which Greek speculation was prone."
Karl R. Popper admires Democritus's rationalism, humanism, and
love of freedom and writes that Democritus, along with fellow
countryman Protagoras, "formulated the doctrine that human
institutions of language, custom, and law are not taboos but man-made,
not natural but conventional, insisting, at the same time, that we are
responsible for them."
Works by Democritus
On the Disposition of the Wise Man
On the Things in Hades
On Manliness or On Virtue
The Horn of Amaltheia
The Great World-Ordering a
On the Planets
On the Nature of Man or On Flesh b
On the Mind
On the Senses
On Different Shapes
On Changing Shape
On Logic c
Causes Concerned with Fire and Things in Fire
Causes Concerned with Sounds
Causes Concerned with Seeds and Plants and Fruits
Causes Concerned with Animals c
On Different Angles or On contact of Circles and Spheres
On Irrational Lines and Solids b
On the Great Year or Astronomy d
Contest of the Waterclock
Description of the Heavens
Description of the Poles
Description of Rays of Light
On the Rhythms and Harmony
On the Beauty of Verses
On Euphonious and Harsh-sounding Letters
Causes Concerning Appropriate and Inappropriate Occasions
Fighting in Armor
On the Sacred Writings of Babylon
On Those in Meroe
Circumnavigation of the Ocean
On Fever and Coughing Sicknesses
a May have been written by Leucippus
b Two books
c Three books
Source: Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek
Philosophy (Penguin 1987),
Democritus University of Thrace
National Centre of Scientific Research "DEMOKRITOS"
Democritus was depicted on the following contemporary coins/banknotes:
The reverse of the Greek 10 drachmas coin of 1976–2001.
The obverse of the Greek 100 drachmas banknote of 1967–1978.
^ The idea that atoms and void as the fundamental constituents of the
world (DK B125: "ἐτεῇ δὲ ἄτομα καὶ κενόν").
^ DK 68 B118.
^ DK 59 A80: Aristotle,
^ a b c d e f Barnes (1987).
^ a b Russell, pp. 64–65.
^ Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield, The Architecture of Matter
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 56.
^ Diogenes Laërtius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, ix.
Aristoxenus in his Historical Notes affirms that
Plato wished to
burn all the writings of
Democritus that he could collect".
^ Pamela Gossin, Encyclopedia of Literature and Science, 2002.
Democritus at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
^ Aristotle, De Coel. iii.4, Meteor. ii.7
^ Diogenes Laërtius, ix. 34, etc.
^ a b Diogenes Laërtius, ix. 41.
^ "The latter date [460 BC] is perhaps somewhat preferable, especially
given the evident temptation to classify
Democritus as older than
Socrates on generic grounds, i.e. that
Democritus was the last
Socrates the first 'ethical' one". Cynthia
Farrar, 1989, The Origins of Democratic Thinking: The Invention of
Politics in Classical Athens, page 195. Cambridge University Press
^ John Burnet (1955). Greek Philosophy:
Thales to Plato, London:
Macmillan, p. 194.
^ Cicero, de Finibus, v.19; Strabo, xvi.
^ Diodorus, i.98.
^ Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, i.
^ Aelian, Varia Historia, iv. 20; Diogenes Laërtius, ix. 35.
^ Tatian, Orat. cont. Graec. 17. "However, this Democritus, whom
Tatian identified with the philosopher, was a certain Bolus of Mendes
who, under the name of Democritus, wrote a book on sympathies and
antipathies" – Owsei Temkin (1991),
Hippocrates in a World of Pagans
and Christians, p. 120. JHU Press.
^ Diogenes Laërtius, ii.14; Sextus vii.140.
^ Diogenes Laërtius, ix.42.
^ Diogenes Laertius 9.36 and
Cicero Tusculanae Quaestiones 5.36.104,
cited in p. 349 n. 2 of
W. K. C. Guthrie (1965), A History of Greek
Philosophy, vol. 2, Cambridge.
^ Aristotle, Metaph. xiii.4; Phys. ii.2, de Partib. Anim. i.1
^ Cicero, de Finibus v.29; Aulus Gellius, x.17; Diogenes Laërtius,
ix.36; Cicero, Tusculanae Quaestiones v.39.
^ Seneca, de Ira, ii.10; Aelian, Varia Historia, iv.20.
^ Diodorus, xiv.11.5.
^ Lucian, Macrobii 18
Hipparchus ap. Diogenes Laërtius, ix.43.
^ Brewer, E. Cobham (1978) [reprint of 1894 version]. The Dictionary
of Phrase and Fable. Edwinstowe, England: Avenel Books. p. 3.
^ Tatarkiewicz, Wladyslaw. History of Aesthetics: Edited by J.
Harrell, C. Barrett and D. Petsch (p. 89 -. A&C Black, 1 Apr 2006
ISBN 0826488552. Retrieved 2015-05-06.
^ Derek Gjertsen (1986), The Newton Handbook, p. 468.
^ Sylvia Berryman (2005). "Ancient Atomism", Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy. – Retrieved on 15 July 2009.
^ Pfeffer, Jeremy, I.; Nir, Shlomo (2001). Modern Physics: An
Introduction Text. World Scientific Publishing Company. p. 183.
^ See testimonia DK 68 A 80, DK 68 A 37 and DK 68 A 43. See also
Cassirer, Ernst (1953). An Essay on Man: an Introduction to the
Philosophy of Human Culture. Doubleday & Co. p. 214. ASIN
^ Russell, p. 69.
^ Aristotle, Phys. iv.6
^ Russell, pp. 69–71.
Metaphysics iv.1009 b 7.
^ Fr. 117 (Bakalis (2005)):
Diogenes Laërtius ix.72.
^ Fr. 135 (Bakalis (2005)):
Theophrastus 12, De Sensu [On the Senses],
^ Fr. 11 (Bakalis (2005)): Sextus vii.138.
^ Fr. 9 (Bakalis (2005)): Sextus vii.136.
^ Fr. 118 (Bakalis (2005))
Democritus (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)".
Plato.stanford.edu. Retrieved 15 October 2012.
^ a b Popper, Karl R. (1945). The Open Society and its Enemies. Vol
I.: The Spell of Plato. London: George Routledge & Sons.
Petronius ch. 88.
^ Diodorus I.viii.1–7.
^ Russell, pp. 71–72.
^ Russell (1972, p.85).
^ Bank of Greece Archived 28 March 2009 at the Wayback Machine..
Drachma Banknotes & Coins: 10 drachmas Archived 1 January 2009 at
the Wayback Machine.. – Retrieved on 27 March 2009.
^ J. Bourjaily. Banknotes featuring Scientists and Mathematicians. –
Retrieved on 7 December 2009.
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to
Democritus and Laughing
Quotations related to
Democritus at Wikiquote
Works written by or about
Democritus at Wikisource
Berryman, Sylvia. "Democritus". In Zalta, Edward N. Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
"Democritus". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Democritus", MacTutor
Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews .
Ancient Greek mathematics
Aristaeus the Elder
Isidore of Miletus
Theon of Alexandria
Theon of Smyrna
Zeno of Elea
Zeno of Sidon
On the Sizes and Distances (Aristarchus)
On Sizes and Distances
On Sizes and Distances (Hipparchus)
On the Moving Sphere (Autolycus)
The Sand Reckoner
Problem of Apollonius
Squaring the circle
Doubling the cube
Library of Alexandria
Ancient Greek mathematicians
Pre-Socratic philosophers by school
Greek Dark Ages
Ancient Greek colonies
Antigonid Macedonian army
Army of Macedon
Sacred Band of Thebes
List of ancient Greeks
Kings of Argos
Archons of Athens
Kings of Athens
Kings of Commagene
Kings of Lydia
Kings of Macedonia
Kings of Paionia
Attalid kings of Pergamon
Kings of Pontus
Kings of Sparta
Tyrants of Syracuse
Diogenes of Sinope
Alexander the Great
Milo of Croton
Philip of Macedon
Ancient Greek tribes
Funeral and burial practices
Arts and science
Greek Revival architecture
Funeral and burial practices
Theatre of Dionysus
Tunnel of Eupalinos
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BNF: cb11899529t (data)