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The Impulse for Renewal in Culture and Science

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The Impulse for Renewal in Culture and Science

Schmidt Number: S-4776

On-line since: 15th July, 2018


Lecture One by Rudolf Steiner given in Berlin, 6 March 1922

“Anthroposophy and Natural Science.”


Welcome, all who are present here! It was the wish of the committees of this High School week that I give an introduction each day regarding the course which will take place in a scientifically orientated process. It will be conducted with the aim of Anthroposophy fructifying the individual branches of science and of life, and with these introductory words I ask you to take up this first lecture.

What has surprised me the most at the reception of the anthroposophical research method is the opposition, particularly from the philosophic-natural scientific side — I'm not only saying the natural scientific side — brought against Anthroposophy, and it stems from a basic belief that Anthroposophy's methods stand in an unauthorised, opposing position to those of natural science which has developed exponentially in the last century, particularly the 19th Century. It seems to me that among all the various things related to Anthroposophy which our contemporaries find the most difficult to understand, is this, that Anthroposophy in relation to natural science doesn't want anything other than that the methods used by natural science which have proved so fruitful, be developed further in a corresponding manner. In any case, with the idea of further development something else needs understanding, if one wants to arrive at an anthroposophic understanding, than that which one usually calls further evolution from a theoretical point of view.

Further development from a theoretical point of view for most people means that the particular way thoughts are linked — particularly if I may express it as the field of thought — remains constant, also when relevant thought systems expand to other areas of the world's phenomena. So for instance when you engage scientifically with lifeless, inorganic nature you necessarily come to linking thoughts, to a certain field of thought, which means the sum of linking thoughts is a foundation, in order to gradually arrive at a theory about lifeless, inorganic nature. This system of thoughts, as it stands, you now want to extend when you enter another sphere of the world, for example the sphere of organic phenomena in nature, in order to understand it. You would want with this causal orientation, which has proved itself so fruitful in the inorganic area, to simply apply it to living beings and in the same terms, drenching and explaining it, thus gradually conceptualising the sphere of the living beings similarly into an effective system derived from inorganic causalities which you would be doing with regard to lifeless, inorganic nature. What you have appropriated as a system of thought derived from lifeless nature, you simply apply to organic nature. This is what is usually understood today, as the ‘expansion’ of thoughts and theories.

This is of course quite the opposite of what Anthroposophy regards under such an idea as the expansion of thinking. A fully rounded concept of an independently developed, self metamorphosed idea need to be contained, so that if you want to go from one sphere of world phenomena into another, that you don't merely apply what you have learnt from lifeless natural phenomena, and — I could call it “logically apply” — it on to life-filled phenomena in nature. By comparison, just as things change in the living world, growing, going through metamorphosis, and how they often become unrecognisable from one form into another, so thoughts should also take on other forms when they enter into other spheres. One thing remains the same in all spheres which is what gives the scientific point of view its monistic and methodical character, it's the manner and way in which you can position yourself internally to what can be called “scientific certainty” which forms the basis of scientific convictions.

Whoever wants to find proof why one can't use concepts gleaned from lifeless nature, concepts which are applied through habits, in which to verify human causalities — if I may use Du Bois-Reymond's expression — whoever gets to know this intimately, can then shift over to quite different concepts, concepts which are metamorphosed from earlier concepts, and sound convincing in the world of the living. The way in which the human being is positioned within the scientific movement is completely monistic right though the entire scientific world view. This is usually misunderstood and results in the anthroposophic-scientific viewpoint not having a monistic but a dualistic character.

The second item which commonly leads to misunderstandings is phenomenology, to which Anthroposophy with regard to natural science must submit. We are experiencing a fruitful time of scientific developments, a time in which the important scientific researcher Virchow gave his lecture regarding the separation of the philosophic world view from that of the natural scientific view, how everything had been conquered which at that time had a certain historic rating of fruitful concepts regarding the inorganic, resulting in a certain rationalism being established in science. This period which worked on the one side earnestly from empiricism against the outer world of facts, this still went over to a far-reaching rationalism when it came down to it to elucidate the empirically explored facts of nature.

By contrast we now have the standpoint of Anthroposophy which comes from — at least for me it comes from this, if I might make a personal remark — from the Goethean conception of nature. Anthroposophy stands on the basis of a phenomenological concept of nature. In a certain way this phenomenology of recent times was established again by Ernst Mach, and as he established it, he again appeared to reveal fertile points of view, if one complies with his boundaries. For Goethe it simply lies in his words: The world of appearances is theory enough, one doesn't even need to subscribe to artificial theories. The blue of the sky is a phenomenon which stops there and one can't condescend in a rational way through mere thoughts behind the appearance by looking for hypothetical, assumed reasons for explanations. Goethe arrived at this point by establishing what he called the ‘Ur-phenomenon’ (“Urphänomen” or ‘Original Phenomenon’). It is self explanatory that in the course of the fertile time for science in the 19th Century, much of which has become obsolete, what Goethe envisaged for natural science was the following: The methodical, the way of thinking itself which Goethe introduced into natural science is not only overhauled today but it appears to me to be not sufficiently understood.

I know very well how in the 19th Century several — one could say nearly all — of the details of Goethe's interpretations regarding natural scientific things have been overhauled. Despite that, I would like to sustain a sentence today which I made in the eighties of the previous (19th) Century in relation to Goethe's concept of nature: ‘Goethe is the Copernicus and Kepler of organic natural science.’ I want to still support this sentence today because I believe the following is justified by it.

What is it that lets us finally arrive at a true perception of nature on which so much of the 19th Century had been achieved? What I'm referring to can't but be set within the boundary of a historic category. What has been achieved through science during the 19th century nearly always refers back to the application of mathematical methods because even where pure mathematics aren't applied, but thoughts steered according to other principles of causality, where theories are developed, here the mathematical way of thinking forms a basis.

It is significant in what happened: we have seen in the course of the 19th Century how certain parties of science in a certain rationalistic way had to form a foundation by the introduction of mathematics. The Kantian saying claims that there is only as much certainty in a science as there is mathematics contained within it. Now obviously mathematics can be introduced into everything. Claims of causality go further than possible mathematical developments of concepts. However, what has been done in terms of explanations of causality was done extensively according to the pattern of mathematical conceptions. When Ernst Mach became involved, considering it with his more phenomenological viewpoint of these concepts of causality, as it had developed in the course of the 19th Century, he wanted to arrive at a certain causal understanding of the contents. Finally he declared: ‘When I consider a process and its cause, there is actually nothing different between it and a mathematical function. For instance, if I say: X equals Y, while X is the cause under the influence of the working called Y, then I have taken the entire thing back to the concept which I have in mathematics, when I created a concept of function. It can also be seen in the history of science, how the concept of mathematics has been brought into the sphere of science.’

Now Goethe is usually regarded — with a certain right — as a non-mathematician; he even called himself as such. However, if one places Goethe there as a non-mathematician, then misunderstandings arise — somewhat in the sense that Goethe couldn't achieve much with mathematical details, that he was not particularly talented in his time to solve mathematical problems. That may of course be admitted. I also don't believe Goethe in his total being had particular patience to solve detailed mathematical examples, if it was more algebraic. That has to be admitted. However, Goethe had in a certain sense, as paradoxical as it might sound, more of a mathematician's brain than some mathematicians; because he had fine insight into mathematized nature, in the nature of building mathematical concepts, and he prized this way of thinking, which lives within the soul process also with the content of imagination when concepts are created.

The mathematician, when building concepts, scrutinizes everything internally. Take for instance a simple example of Euclidean geometry which proves that the three angles of a triangle amounts to 180 degrees, where, by drawing a line parallel to the base line, through the tip of the triangle, two angles are created, which are equal to the other two angles in the triangle — the angle in the tip remains the same of course — and how one can see that these three corners at the top add to 180 degrees, being the total of all the corners of the triangle. When you consider this, you can see that with a mathematical proof you have simultaneously something which is not dependent on outer perception but it is completely observed as an inner creation. If you then have an outer triangle you will find that the outer facts can be verified with one's previous inner scrutiny. That is so with all mathematics. Everything remains the same, no perception of the senses need to be added to it in order to arrive at what is called a “proof”, that everything which has been discovered internally can be verified, piece-by-piece.

It is this particular kind of mathematics which Goethe regarded as eminently scientific and insofar he actually had a good mathematical brain. This for example also leads to the basis of the famous lectures which Goethe and Schiller, during the time of their blossoming friendship, had led regarding the method of scientific consideration. They had both attended a lecture held by the researcher Batsch in the Jena based Naturforschenden Gesellschaft (Nature's Investigator's Club — Wikepedia: August J G Batsch). As they departed from the lecture, Schiller said to Goethe that the content of what they had heard was a very fragmentary method of observing nature, it didn't bring one to a whole. — One can imagine that Batsch simply took single natural objects and ordered them one below another and refrained, as befitted most researchers at the time, from ordering them somehow which could lead to an overall view of nature. Schiller found this unsatisfactory and told Goethe. Goethe said he understood how a certain unification, a certain wholeness had to be brought into observations of nature. Thus, he began with a few lines — he narrates this himself — to draw the “Urpflanze” (Original Plant), how it can be thought about, looked at inwardly — not like some or other plant encountered in the day, but how it could be regarded inwardly through the root, stem, leaves, flowers and fruit.

In my introduction to Goethe's “Naturwissenschaftlichen Schriften” (Natural Scientific Notes) of the 80's of the previous (19th) century, I tried to copy the image which Goethe presented to Schiller on paper. — Schiller looked at it and said, as was his way of expressing himself: ‘This is no experience, this is an idea.’ Schiller actually meant that if one made a drawing of something like that, it had been spun out of oneself, it is good as an idea and as a thought but in reality, it has no source. Goethe couldn't understand this way of thinking at all, and finally the conversation was concluded by his reply: ‘If that is the case then I can see my ideas with my eyes.’

What did Goethe mean by this? He meant — but hadn't expressed it like this, he meant: ‘When I draw a triangle its corners add up to 180 degrees by themselves; when I have seen as many triangles and constructed them within me, the sum of all triangles fit on to this triangle, I have in this way gained something from within which fits the totality of my experiences.’ In this way Goethe wanted to draw his “Urpflanze” according to the “Ur-triangle” and this Ur-plant would have such characteristics that one could find it in all individual plants. Just as the sum of the triangle's corners, when you draw the Ur-triangle, amounts to 180 degrees, so also this ideal image of the Ur-plant would be rediscovered in each plant if you go through an entire row of plants.

In this manner Goethe wanted all of science to take shape. Essentially he wanted — but he couldn't continue — to let organic science be developed and introduce such methods of thinking as had been proven so fruitful for inorganic science. One can very clearly see, when Goethe writes about Italy, how he developed the idea of the Ur-plant ever further. He more or less said: ‘Here among the plants in South Italy and Sicily in the multiplicity of the plant world the Ur-plant rose up for me specially, and it must surely find an image which all actual plants possibly have within them, an image in which many different sides may appear taking on this or that, adapting elongated or other plant forms, soon forming the flower, soon the fruit and more, and so on — just like a triangle can have sharp or blunt corners.’ Goethe searched for an image according to which all plants could be formed. It is quite incorrect when later, Schieiden [Matthias Jakob Schieiden (1804-1881), botanist, Physician and lawyer. — “The plant and Its Life”, 6th edition of Leipzig 1864, Lecture 4: “The Morphology of Plants”, p. 86: “The idea of such laws for the design of the plant was first developed by Goethe in his idea of ‘Urpflanz’, what he put forth as the primal, or ideal plant. That realization was, as it were, the task of nature, and which she more or less has completely achieved completely.”] indicated that Goethe was looking for an actual plant to fit his Ur-plant. This is not correct — just as when a mathematician, when speaking about a triangle, doesn't have a particular triangle in mind — so Goethe was referring to an image, which, proven inwardly, could actually be verified everywhere in the outer world.

Goethe basically had a mathematical brain, much more mathematical than those who develop Astronomy. That's the essence. This led to Goethe, in his conversation with Schiller, to say: ‘Then I see my ideas with my eyes.’ He saw them with his eyes because he could pursue them everywhere in the phenomena. He didn't go along with anything only being an “idea”, because he found complete resonance in the experience of building an idea; just like a mathematician senses harmony within the experience of creating mathematical ideas. This led Goethe, if I might say so, through an inner consequence to arrive at mere phenomenology, that means not trying to find anything behind appearances as such, above all not to create a rationalistic world of atoms.

Here one enters into the area where many — I can but say it — misunderstandings developed relating to battles against some scientific philosophic points of view. It simply meant that what the outer world offered the senses were seen as phenomena. Goethe and with him the entire scientific phenomenology was narrowed down to not going directly from some sense perceptive phenomenon into the atomic content behind it, but by focussing purely on the perceived phenomenon and the single element of the perceived facts, and then to search not for what lies behind it, but for its correlation to other elements of sense-perceptible appearances relating to it.

It is very easy — I understand totally where misunderstandings come from — to find such phenomenology as hopeless. One can say for instance: When one wants to merely narrow down descriptions of mutual relationships in sensory phenomena and search for those phenomena which are the simplest, which possibly have the most manageable facts — which Goethe calls “Ur-phenomena” — then one doesn't come to an observation about endless fruitful things as modern Chemistry has delivered for example. How — one could ask — can one actually arrive at atomic weight ratios without observing the atomic world? Now, in this case one can counter this with the question: When one really reflects what is present there, does it involve a need to start with the phenomenon? One has no involvement with it. With atomic weight ratios one is involved with phenomena, namely weight ratios. Still, one could ask: To go further, could one express the atomic weight ratios numerically in order to clarify how specific molecular structures are built out of pure thought, rationalistically? One could pose this question as well. Briefly, what is not involved when Goethean observation is used, is this: remaining stuck in the phenomena themselves. I would like to compare it with a trivial comparison.

Let's imagine someone is confronted with a written word. What will he do? If he hasn't learnt to read he would meet it as something inexplicable. If he was literate he would unconsciously join the single forms together and encounter its meaning within his soul. He certainly wouldn't start with each symbol, for instance by taking the W and search for its meaning, by approaching the upward stroke, followed by the descending stroke, in order to discover the foundation of the letters. No, he would read — and not search for the underlying to obtain clarity. In this way phenomenology wants to “read” as well. You may remain within the connections of phenomenology and learn to read them, and not, when I offer a complexity of phenomenon, turn back to atomic structures.

It comes down to entering into the field of phenomena and learning to read within their inner meaning. This would lead to a science which has nothing rationalistically construed within it behind the phenomena, but which, simply through the way the phenomena are regarded, lead to certain legitimate structures. In every case this science would be a member of the totality of the phenomena. One would speak in a specific way about nature. With this approach the laws of nature would be contained, but in every instance the phenomena themselves would be contained in the forms of expression. One would achieve what I would like to call a natural science inherent in the phenomena. Along the lines of such a science was Goethe's striving. The way and manner of his approach had to be changed according to the progress of modern times but it still is possible for the fundamental principles to be maintained. When these fundamental principles are adhered to, nature itself presents something towards human conceptualising, which I would like to characterise in the following way.

It is quite obvious that we as modern humanity have developed our scientific concepts according to inorganic nature. This is the result of inorganic natural phenomena being relatively simple; it was also the result of, or course, when one enters the organic realm, the agents of the lifeless processes still persist. When one moves from the mineral to the plant kingdom then it does not happen that the lifeless activities stops in the plant; they only become absorbed into a higher principle, but it continues in the plant. We do the right thing when we follow the physical and chemical processes further in the plant organism according to the same point of view which we are used to following in inorganic nature. We also need to have the ability to shift our belief system towards change, to metamorphosed concepts. We need to research how the inorganic also applies to the plants and how the same processes which are found in lifeless nature, also penetrate the plants. However, this could result in the temptation to only research what lies in the mineral world within the plant and animal and as a result overlook what appears in higher spheres. Due to special circumstances this temptation increased much more in the course of the 19th Century. This happened in the following way.

When one looks at lifeless nature one feels to some extent satisfied because research of the phenomena can be done with mathematical thinking. It is quite understandable that Du Bois-Reymond in his wordy and brilliant manner gave his lecture “Regarding the boundaries of Nature's understanding” in which he, I could call it, celebrated the Laplace world view and called it the “astronomical conception” of the entire natural world existence. According to this astronomical conception not only were the starry heavens to be regarded this way, through mathematical thinking constructing single phenomena into a whole, as far as possible, but that one should try and penetrate with this into the constitution of matter. One molecule was to construct a small world system where the atoms would move in relation to one another like the stars in the world's structure. Man constructed himself in the smallest of the small world system and was satisfied that he would find the same laws in the small as in the big. So one had in the single atoms and molecules a system of moving bodies like one has outside in the world structure's system of fixed stars and planets. This is characteristic of the direction in which mankind was striving particularly in the 19th Century and how people were satisfied, as Du Bois-Reymond said, as a result of the need for causality. It simply developed out of the urge to apply mathematics fruitfully to all natural phenomena. This resulted in the temptation for these mathematicians to remain stuck in their observation of natural phenomena.

It won't occur to anyone, also not an Anthroposophist, if he doesn't want to express himself inexpertly, to deny that this is justified, for instance when someone remains within the phenomena and concerns himself with details, for example in Astronomy, and conceive it in this way. It won't occur to anyone to start a fight against this. However, in the course of the 19th Century it occurred that everything the world offered was overlooked which had a qualitative aspect and only regarded the qualitative aspect by applying mathematical understanding to it. Here one must differentiate: One can admit that this mechanical explanation of the world is valid, nothing can be brought against it. One needs to differentiate between whether it can be applied justifiably to certain areas only, or whether it should be applied as the one and only possible system of understanding everything in the world.

Here lies the point of difference. The Anthroposophist will not argue in the least against something which is justified. Anthroposophy namely won't oppose the other and it is interesting to follow arguments how Anthroposophy actually admits to all which is within justifiable boundaries. It doesn't occur to the Anthroposophist to argue against what natural science has validated. However, it comes down to whether it is justified to include the entire sphere of phenomena with the mathematical-causal way of thinking, or whether it is justifiable, out of the totality of phenomena, to place those of a purely mathematical-causal abstraction as a “conceived” content, as it had been done in earlier atomic theory.

Today atomic theory has to a certain extent become phenomenological, and to this extent Anthroposophy concurs. However even today it comes down to some spooks of the 19th Century appearing in this un-Goethean atomic theory, which doesn't limit itself to phenomena but constructs a purely conceptual framework behind the phenomena. When one isn't clear about it being a purely conceptual framework, that the world searches behind phenomena, but that the appearance claims this conceptual framework is reality, then one becomes nailed down by it. It is extraordinary how such conceptual frameworks nail people down. Through them they become more dogmatic and say: ‘There are people who want to explain the organic through quite different concepts which they find from quite somewhere else, but this doesn't exist; we have developed such conceptual structures which encompass the world behind the phenomena; this is the only world and this must also be the only workable way with regard the organic sphere.’ — In this way the observation of the organic sphere is imported into the phenomena observed in inorganic nature; the organic is seen as having been created in the same way as inorganic nature.

Here clarity needs to be established. Without clarity no real foundation for a discussion can be created. Anthroposophy never intends sinning against legitimate methods in a dilettante manner, it will not sin against justified atomic theory; it wants to keep the route free from the creation of thought structures which had been developed earlier for the inorganic sphere and now needs to be created for other areas of nature. This will happen if one says to oneself: ‘In the phenomena I only want to “read”, that means, what I finally get out of the content of natural laws, dwell within the phenomena themselves — just as by reading a word, the meaning is revealed from within the letters. If I lovingly remain standing within the phenomena and am not intent on applying some hypothetical thought structure to it, then I would remain free in my scientific sense for the further development of the concept.’ This ability to remain free is what we need to develop.

We may not take a system of beliefs which have been fully developed and nailed down for a specific area of nature, and apply it to other areas. If we develop mere phenomenology which can obviously only happen if one takes the observed, or through an experiment of chosen phenomena which have been penetrated with thought and is thus linked to natural laws, one remains stuck within the phenomena, but now one arrives at another kind of relationship to thoughts themselves; one comes to the experience of how phenomena already exist within the laws of nature and how they now appear in our thoughts. If we allow ourselves to enter into these thoughts we no longer have the justification in as far as we are remaining within the phenomena, to speak of subjective thoughts or objective laws of nature. We simply dive into the phenomena and then give thought content to the content of the natural laws, which presents us with the things themselves. This is how Goethe could say naively: ‘Then I see my ideas in Nature’ — which were actually laws of nature — ‘with my own eyes.’

When you position yourself in this particular way in the phenomena of inorganic nature, then it is possible to go over into the organic, also within scientific terms. When a person sees that his horse is brown or a gray (Schimmel) horse is white, he won't refer back to the inorganic colour but refer to what is living in a soul-spiritual way in the organism itself. People will learn to understand how the empowered inner organisation of the animal or plant produces the colour out of themselves.

In addition, it is obvious that all the minutiae, for example the functioning of metabolism, need to be examined from within. However, then one doesn't apply the organic to what one has found in the inorganic. One doesn't nail oneself firmly on to a specific system of thought, and one doesn't apply the same basic conviction you had in one area on to other areas. One remains more of a “mathematical mind” than those who refuse to allow concepts to metamorphose into the qualitative. Then one is able to reach higher areas of nature's existence through inner examination just as one is able to validate through inner examination, the lifeless mathematical structures. This is what I briefly wanted to sketch for you, and if it is expanded further, will show that the scientific side of Anthroposophy is always able, what Goethe calls being accountable, to all, even the most diligent mathematician. This was Goethe's goal with the development of his idea of the Ur-plant, which he came to, and the idea of the Ur-animal, at which he didn't arrive. Anthroposophy strives to allow the origins of Goethe's world view to emerge with regards to nature's phenomena and from the grasping of the vital element in imagination to let it rise to the form of the plant and to the form of the animal. Already during the eighties (1880's)I indicated that we need to metamorphose concepts taken from inorganic for organic nature. I'll speak more about this during the coming days.

As a result of this one comes to perceive within the organic what the actual principle of the process, the formative principle, is. Now, in conclusion of this reflection I would like to introduce something which will lead to further observations in the coming days; something which will show how this materialistic phase of scientific development is not be undervalued by Anthroposophy.

Anthroposophy must see an important evolutionary principle in this materialistic phase of natural science, an educational method through which one has once learnt to submit oneself to the empiricism of the outer senses. This was extraordinarily educational for the development of mankind, and now when this education has been enjoyed, one can look at certain things with great clarity. Whoever now, equipped with such a scientific sense for observing the outer material world, will make the observation that this material world is ‘mirrored’ in people, if I might use this expression.

The world we experience within is more or less an abstraction of an inner image permeated by experiences and will impulses of the outer material world so that when we move from the material outer world to the soul-spiritual, we come to nothing but imagery. Let's hold on to this firmly: outwardly there's the totality of material phenomena, which we are looking at in a phenomenological sense — and within, the soul-spiritual which has a particular abstract character, a pictorial character. If one approaches the observation with an anthroposophical view that the spiritual lies at the basis of the outer material world, the spirit which works in the movement of the stars, in the creation of minerals, plants and animals, then one enters in the spiritual creation of the outer world; one gets to know this through imagination, inspiration and intuition, then this is also an inner mirror image of the human being. But what is this inner mirror image of the human being? It is our physical organs. They respond to me in what I've learnt to know as the nature of the sun, the nature of the moon, minerals, plants, animals and so on; this is how the inner organs answer me. I only get to know my inner human organism when I get to know the outer things of the world. The material world outside mirrors in my soul-spiritual; the soul spiritual world outside reflects itself in the form of lungs, liver, heart and so on. The inner organs are, when you look at them, in the same relationship with the spiritual outer world as the relationship of our thoughts and experiences are to the material outer world.

This shows us how Anthroposophy consistently does not want to reject materialism in an enthusiastic sense. Look at the entire scope of natural science: thousands will be dissatisfied with results obtained through the usual methods of natural science. Anthroposophy and its methods will gradually gain an opinion regarding the material world which does not result in dissatisfaction. It acknowledges matter in its own organisation and in the phenomenology of the environment but it has to acknowledge at the same time that the inner organisation is the result, the consequences of the cosmic soul-spiritual. Through this it wants to supplement what has only mathematically been accomplished in astronomy, astrophysics, physics or chemistry. This it wants to explore further in an organic cosmology and so on, and as a result bring about an understanding with materialistic people. In this lies the foundation of what Anthroposophy wants to offer to medicine, biology and so on.

So I believe that through these indications which I've only been able to give as a sketch, it will point out how Anthroposophy, when it is correctly understood, can't be seen as wanting to initiate a war against today's science but on the contrary, that the present day representatives of science haven't crossed the bridge to Anthroposophy to see how it also wants to be strictly scientific with regards to natural phenomena.




Last Modified: 16-Aug-2019
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