In memory of Michael J. Thompson

Colleagues around the world mourn the loss of a remarkable, scientist, leader, and friend

Nov 5, 2018 - by Staff

Update: A Celebration of Life honoring Michael Thompson has been scheduled for January 5 at 11 a.m. The service will be held at NCAR's Center Green Campus, located at 3080 Center Green Drive in Boulder.

Colleagues at NCAR, UCAR, and across our community were deeply saddened by the news that Michael J. Thompson, the NCAR Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer, died unexpectedly and inexplicably on October 15, 2018. An outstanding solar physicist and scientific administrator, Michael was highly respected across the organization and the entire international research community. He had previously served as Director of NCAR's High Altitude Observatory (HAO) and Interim UCAR President, as well as being a Senior Scientist.

"Michael’s guidance, insights, and institutional knowledge provided immeasurable benefits," said UCAR President Antonio Busalacchi. "His dedication to NCAR and UCAR over many years has left a substantial and enduring impact on our organization. His leadership will be deeply missed."

We have received numerous tributes from co-workers and collaborators across the organization and around the world. Here are some highlights from his distinguished career and a sampling of those tributes.

A distinguished career

Michael and Kate Thompson in 2015

Michael and Kate Thompson share a toast at the reception celebrating the High Altitude Observatory on its 75th anniversary in September 2015.

Michael first came to NCAR from England as a visiting scientist in 1988. He returned to England for the following two decades, where he enjoyed a remarkably distinguished research and management career. This included positions at Imperial College, London as Professor of Physics and Deputy Head of the Space and Atmospheric Physics Group, and at the University of Sheffield as Head of the School of Mathematics and Statistics. His research focused on helioseismology — understanding the Sun's internal rotation and structure by examining measurements of surface oscillations. Michael's pioneering work in this area contributed immeasurably to fundamental insights into the Sun and its influence on our own planet and, indeed, the entire heliosphere. His collaborations with NCAR colleagues continued to grow during this time, and he became an NCAR affiliate scientist in 2003. His work also expanded to asteroseismology, increasing our understanding of the fundamental properties of other stars.

After an international search, Michael was appointed as the Director of NCAR’s High Altitude Observatory and an Associate Director of NCAR in 2010. In this position, he put great focus on strengthening HAO's visitor program, collaborations with universities and the broader solar and geospace research community, education and training for early-career scientists, and close interactions with other NCAR labs to better understand the Sun's impacts on Earth. Under his leadership, HAO research thrived, producing new insights into the solar cycle, coronal mass ejections, Earth's outer atmosphere, and other important aspects of the Sun-Earth system.

Michael was appointed NCAR Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer in 2013. In addition, for 13 critical months in 2015–16, he served as Interim UCAR President and provided steady guidance through a challenging time of transition. His importance to NCAR and UCAR in both these positions cannot be overstated. With an unparalleled work ethic and attention to detail, Michael gained an understanding of the organization that was second to none.

Four HAO directors

Four directors of HAO gathered during the seminars and reception celebrating HAO’s 75th anniversary. Clockwise from top left: Scott MacIntosh (2014- ), Michael Thompson (2010-2014), Michael Knolker (1995-2009), and Robert MacQueen (1979-1986).

"He was extremely focused on making sure the details were correct. It takes a special kind of person who can do that and elevate back to the strategic level," said Scott McIntosh, who succeeded Michael as HAO Director. "He was also unflappable. He was even-keeled when HAO needed it, and then when UCAR needed it."

Michael played a leading role in advancing virtually all UCAR and NCAR organizational priorities, from research initiatives to new business systems developed under the Operational Excellence (OPEX) program. Just as importantly, Michael developed a strong relationship with the National Science Foundation (NSF) during his time as Interim President. This put UCAR on a trajectory to win the competitive process that culminated in the signing last month of a five-year cooperative agreement to continue its management of NCAR on behalf of NSF.

Other colleagues have noted his incredible ability to drill down into complex processes and put his finger on what was not working or could be improved. Helen Moshak, who served as NCAR Operations Director, recalls feeling a sense of awe at Michael's reaction to a spreadsheet of dozens of columns and hundreds of rows showing relationships among various categories of data from employee surveys.

"He literally looked at it and saw the pattern in the numbers and found a single cell with an error in it," she said. "He had this ability to understand the logic of it and the pattern and see it from the different levels, from the cellular to the organizational, and that is what he brought to leadership as well."

Colleagues have also expressed appreciation for Michael's skill at bringing together teams, his listening skills, and his dry sense of humor. Those who worked directly for him said they always felt he had their interests at heart.

"I knew I was going to be supported, and I really appreciated having the opportunity to propose ways I could make a difference to the institution," Helen said. "He trusted the people who worked for him."

NCAR Directorate staff in 2017

The NCAR Directorate team in May 2017. Left to right: Susan Chavez, Jim Hurrell, Michael Thompson, Rena Brasher-Alleva, and Helen Moshak.

Mary Marlino, the Director of the NCAR Library, said that Michael was both her strongest ally and someone who did not hesitate to tell her the truth, unpleasant though it might be. "Best boss I have ever had," she said.

In addition to his contributions to NCAR and UCAR, Michael was always seeking to learn more. He was a Visiting Professor at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan when he died. He was there to conduct scientific research and strengthen collaborations, but also wanted to improve his knowledge of the Japanese language. His constant quest for knowledge inspired many early career scientists and long-term colleagues.

"We recognize him as not only a prominent researcher in helioseismology and asteroseismology, but also a great leader who had led groups of researchers in different fields at different places in the world," said Motohide Tamura, Director of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Tokyo.

Sarbani Basu, Professor and Chair of the Department of Astronomy at Yale University, still remembers Michael's guidance when she was a postdoc in 1993 at Queen Mary and Westfield College (now Queen Mary University of London).

"Michael was an ideal postdoc supervisor; he gave me enough independence to develop my work, but was ready to help when I needed it," she said. "My work with Michael helped put me firmly on my path to success in my field."

Michael, however, had a number of interests other than science; he enjoyed music, good food and wine, and conversation.

"Although I knew Michael only a short time, he made a big impact on me when, at my team offsite, he suggested we perform a duet at the social event," said Lory Wingate, who joined UCAR as Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer in May. "I played guitar while Michael sang. It was then that we all learned what an amazing singer Michael was, and such a good sport."

Michael also loved the countryside and landscape. At the home he shared with his wife, Kate, in the foothills west of Boulder, he enjoyed woodland management and watching wildlife. He often remarked on the first croci and daffodils of spring and looked forward every day to visits from wild turkeys.

"We’re living up in the foothills, near Walker Ranch, and greatly enjoying observing the wildlife," Michael said in a 2011 interview for UCAR’s staff newsletter, shortly after coming to NCAR. "We’ve already been visited by a bobcat and wild turkeys and are looking forward to seeing our first bears and mountain lions up there."

Just two years after that interview, Michael's talents had become so evident that NCAR Director Jim Hurrell invited him to be his Deputy Director. "No words can adequately describe the importance of Michael to me as a friend and a colleague, or the pain of his loss," Jim said. “He was a superb leader and scientist, never seeking the spotlight but always doing whatever he could to help others achieve success. Most importantly, however, he was an extremely close friend. That, I will cherish forever."

Tributes in Memory of Michael J. Thompson

Scientist, leader, mentor, friend

I met Michael for the first time in early October 1993. I had just finished my Ph.D. in India and had gone to London to take up a postdoctoral position at the Queen Mary and Westfield College (now Queen Mary University of London). It was my first time abroad as an adult, and I was nervous to say the least. Those were pre-web days, and there was no easy way for me to arrange accommodation in London from India, so Michael had arranged for me to stay at a B&B, right next door to where he lived with his wife, Kate, and son, Robin.

Michael and Kate invited me to dinner my first evening in London and by the end of the dinner I knew I would do well working with Michael.

Michael was an ideal postdoc supervisor; he gave me enough independence to develop my work, but was ready to help when I needed it. My work with Michael helped put me firmly on my path to success in my field. I was in London only for one year, but we collaborated even after I left London. I will miss him tremendously.

  • Sarbani Basu, Department of Astronomy, Yale University

UCAR/NCAR and our entire scientific community owe Michael an enormous debt of gratitude for the work he did, bringing stability to the organization under exceptionally difficult circumstances. When, without notice, I asked him to consider the position of Interim President of UCAR, he immediately saw the greater importance of the moment and agreed to serve. He was the right person at the right time - a decisive leader who did not shy away from difficult decisions. He put his heart and soul into the job. Michael was truly a scholar and a gentleman. He was recognized internationally for his solar physics research, and he was wise, thoughtful and friendly in all our interactions, without exception. I will always remember Michael’s sense of humor and the smile on his face.

  • Eric Betterton, former UCAR Board Chair (2013-2016); Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Arizona

Michael went beyond the role of supervisor to get to know his staff. He lived at a higher elevation than me (~7700 feet compared to my ~6300), so we would always compare snow totals, snow water content and how to remove it! After I raved about my 3-stage "snow thrower," he purchased the same model. We discussed snow throwing best practices and sheerpin troubleshooting, and I helped him perform annual maintenance on the machine (i.e. oil changes, etc).

The first time Michael came to my home was for a baby shower. He and a colleague walked up my 7/10 mile driveway (~400' elevation gain). She had done it before, so she knew what she was in for. Even after she said he might want to drive due to the distance and grade, Michael preferred to walk. I think that was a tribute to his love for the mountains.

  • Geoff Cheeseman, NCAR Directorate

I first met Michael (apart from seeing him briefly in Cambridge) at IAU Symposium 123, which I organized in Aarhus in 1986, while he was still a Ph.D. student. For some reason he had failed to find accommodation, and so he spent the week on a camp bed in the office of our home. This was the start of our long and fruitful friendship. Our proper collaboration started when I succeeded in obtaining a postdoc position for him (my first postdoc as well as his first postdoc position) in 1987-88. A major breakthrough during this period was his development of an asymptotic technique for solar structure inversion which we further applied and analysed over the following years.

Michael and I had for many years a close collaboration, supported by mutual visits, including summers spent in Boulder. An extended period was during the programme organized at the Institute for Theoretical Physics (ITP), Santa Barbara, in the spring of 1990. One of our projects here concerned the effects of the solar surface layers on solar oscillation frequencies, a topic of continuing major relevance. One of our intense discussions took place on a balcony of the ITP during the February 1990 earthquake in Los Angeles, which was quite noticeable in Santa Barbara. Michael and I were so deep in our discussions that we did not notice anything.

With the shift in Michael's activities towards management our interaction has been less frequent in the last decade. Thus I was very happy that he recently took the initiative and leadership for a project on helioseismic inversion. This project must be carried through in honour of Michael's memory.

  • Jørgen Christensen-Dalsgaard, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Aarhus University

In 2013, Michael became my supervisor when I was Director of the NCAR Advanced Study Program. In these past five years, I had gotten to know him rather well, especially working with him on the NCAR Executive Committee. Michael was always very supportive of me. I learned to appreciate that he had a wonderful sense of humor. Despite an apparent serious demeanor on occasion, this sense of humor was always lurking just below the surface. Michael was vital to NCAR and UCAR, and indeed, a crucial link that held the two organizations together. His was a voice of experience, intellect, reason and kindness that I will deeply miss.

  • Chris Davis, NCAR Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Laboratory

I will always be grateful to Michael for his support and leadership, especially during the 13 months that he served as UCAR Interim President. That was a time of transition and uncertainty, and his steady demeanor and attention to detail proved invaluable to the organization.

One thing that I particularly appreciated was how he also always found the time to support the communications team. He had a great editing eye, and he often provided insightful comments about our draft materials. I feel like I have lost a friend as well as a close colleague. He will be missed dearly.

  • Rachael Drummond, NCAR|UCAR Communications, Office of the UCAR President

Michael was a man of vision, who was quick to see the way to his goals, whether they be scientific or organizational. But, unlike many long-sighted people, he was always ready to change direction in the light of evolving circumstances. I learned this in the very first year of our association. Michael was a student in my mathematics class in Cambridge. There is a formal examination at the end of each year which ranks amongst the most difficult in the world; and I had the reputation of being one of the most rigorous examiners. I was walking past the examination room as the examination of my course had come to an end, perhaps not entirely by accident, when Michael emerged, red-faced in fury, and shouted that he would never speak to me again. He was so incensed by having performed so badly, as he perceived it, in the face of problems at the frontiers of our knowledge. Actually, he was so bright as to recognize more than any other candidate how hard the questions really were: he came top of the class by a substantial margin, and was awarded a university prize. The subject matter of the course had interested him so much that he wanted to pursue research in that field. Seeing that the member of the university most suitable to advise him was I, he rescinded his resolve, and, together with my wife, Rosanne, and Michael's wife, Kate, we all became good friends thereafter. Michael became an independent scientist, and has never looked back since. He has always had the wise support of Kate, who has guided him in all matters.

Over the years, Michael and I have been joint authors of many research papers. Michael's contributions were always insightful and substantial, and it has always been a great pleasure to work with him. Yet Michael's interests went well beyond hands-on science: he became a skilled and sympathetic administrator, facing and tactfully resolving many delicate problems, initially in Sheffield where he united the departments in which mathematics was practised into a single school, and subsequently in Boulder. Unusually, he did not allow administrative duties to take him away from research. He loved the outdoors, he played the piano, he had an interest in local carols in Yorkshire villages, he loved cooking and good wine, and he loved Japan, the culture, the people and the cuisine. In his last years he had been learning the Japanese language.

It has been devastating to lose a colleague who was poised to achieve so much more in the future, but more importantly, to lose such a good friend. Our hearts go out to Kate and their son, Robin.

  • Douglas Gough, University of Cambridge

We lost a colleague who was deeply respected and admired for his scientific contributions and for his service to NCAR and UCAR. Michael and I came to NCAR within a year of each other, he in 2010 to lead the High Altitude Observatory and I in 2011 to lead the Earth Observing Laboratory. We both came to our NCAR posts from academic institutions in Europe. That had created an instant connection and respect, which got deepened over the years of interactions at the NCAR executive team. In his last weeks, I had a privilege of working closely with Michael in my role as the Interim NCAR Director, and to observe the full spectrum of his talent, dedication to this organization, his wit and his humanity. He will be missed. May his soul rest in peace. 

  • Vanda Grubišić, Interim NCAR Director and NCAR Earth Observing Laboratory

I first met Michael in 1994 at a GONG meeting in Los Angeles. Less than a year later I joined him as a postdoc at Queen Mary. The nearly three years I spent there were crucial to my career; Michael introduced me to skills I've been using, and people I've been working with, ever since.

As we worked on preparing for the flood of helioseismic data from MDI and GONG that was soon to come — sharing one IDL license between us, which sometimes took some negotiation — he gently encouraged me to stretch myself and take on challenges outside my comfort zone. His fluency in the mathematical language of physics always impressed me — my own mind never worked that way, but we found ways to communicate. In the years that followed, we continued to collaborate on studies of solar rotation; it was always a pleasure to spend time working with him, and as recently as this year he co-authored a paper with me that benefited from his insightful comments. Michael will be greatly missed.

  • Rachel Howe, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Birmingham

No words can adequately describe the importance of Michael to me as a friend and a colleague, or the pain of his loss. Obviously, he was a trusted and valued colleague in the Directorate, deeply invested in the success of NCAR and UCAR. He was a superb leader and scientist, never seeking the spotlight but always doing whatever he could to help others achieve success. Most importantly, however, he was an extremely close friend. That, I will cherish forever. I miss him deeply.

  • James Hurrell, former NCAR Director (2013-2018); Department of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University

Michael Thompson was an outstanding scientific leader, first and foremost as a researcher, then, more recently and in parallel, as an enabler of the scientific enterprise far beyond his own personal research contribution.

When the Global Oscillation Network Group (GONG) helioseismology program came online, we had a first release of results in the journal Science, and Michael was chosen as the lead author (of 26) on the article entitled “Differential Rotation and Dynamics of the Solar Interior,” which has received 296 citations to date. After taking on progressively more demanding leadership responsibilities, somehow Michael managed to maintain a truly remarkably active research presence and was a visiting Professor at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, hosted by his friend Takashi Sekii, at the time of his tragic passing.

As Chair of the HAO External Advisory Committee while Michael served as HAO Director, I had the opportunity to gain an even deeper appreciation of his thoughtful leadership, and the calm, indefatigable energy that he brought to his science and to his institutional role. He was really amazing.

Michael was also a close collaborator and friend, and he will be sorely missed by all of us who had the good fortune to know him and work with him, as well as the many others, beyond helioseismology and NCAR, who benefited from his multifarious contributions.

  • John Leibacher, National Solar Observatory; Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale, Université de Paris-Sud, Orsay; and Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson

At the most-recent Up-the-Hill bike race [at the NCAR Mesa Lab], after I was done, I stopped by Michael and mentioned jokingly that I had won the lab Director race (being the only lab Director racing). He was very quick to respond that I had also finished last. Michael was extremely witty and funny!

  • Jean-François Lamarque, NCAR Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory

Michael shone as a wonderful leader and colleague. I had the pleasure of working directly for him for 2.5 years. He was as personable as he was intelligent, and a constant advocate for my work.

One had to be diligent when presenting numbers to Michael. For a theoretical mathematician, he sure was practical. I knew I’d have to triple check my numbers before presenting them to him; invariably, still he would find some error I made.

Michael leveraged the scarcity principle when it came to giving compliments. On the limited instances I received a “job well done” (I believe this occured 2, maybe 3 times), it was invaluable. He seemed more intent on improving his employee’s (and the organization’s) position, over adulation...an admirable trait.

Some things I’m truly going to miss: His sense of humor - quick with a light-hearted joke at my expense, and assuming I was sitting close by, a punch in the arm.

The words he used: “Envisage” = anything positive in the future. “Friendly Grilling” = time to present your work to a critical group. “Measured and Considered” = a rational approach toward change, one that I’ll take forward in my professional endeavors.

  • Anthony Mariani, Business Process Improvement, UCAR Operations

Michael’s style was a remarkable combination of attributes: he was no-nonsense, witty, funny, perceptive, scary-smart, and caring, all rolled into one. He was serious, self-deprecating, my most honest critic, and my strongest ally. I could always count on him to tell the truth, uncomfortable as it was at times. He was a “book guy.” He cared deeply about libraries, about learning, about the future of the NCAR Library and Archives, and more importantly, about its people. He was a model of integrity, civility, and simple human kindness. A “scholar and a gentleman” comes to mind…however, for me, Michael was simply my friend, my colleague, and the best boss I have ever had. He traveled through this life with a measure of uncommon grace, and I will miss him very much.

  • Mary Marlino, NCAR Library and Archives

I will be forever grateful to Michael for his incredible support of me and the Finance and Administration staff during his tenure as Interim UCAR President.

Michael demonstrated great courage during his Interim UCAR Presidency in a time when some might be hesitant to make decisions with long-term impacts. Under the leadership of Michael, transformative, complex initiatives were launched and have since come to fruition, significantly moving UCAR forward, technologically and financially. These were projects previously thought by some to be beyond UCAR’s reach. However, Michael, in his wisdom, was open to new approaches. Without Michael’s willingness to take the risks and his success in obtaining the UCAR Board of Trustees’ support for these major projects, UCAR would not be where it is today.

I am so honored to have known and worked closely with Michael. He was an amazing role model: a great listener, unbelievably intelligent and understood everything you presented to him in “real time” (honestly, it was frightening at times!), great sense of humor, respectful, compassionate and, most importantly to me, a loyal colleague and friend.

Through Michael’s mentoring in his everyday approach to life and work, I am a better person. While Michael may be gone from this Earth, his legacy will live on in all of us whose lives he touched.

  • Melissa Miller, former UCAR Vice President for Finance and Administration

Since Michael and I both had houses in forested areas in the mountains, he would sometimes drop by my office to share stories about mountain living. Our preferences were the weather challenges, wildlife visitations, and dropping trees for firewood. One of my favorite stories Michael told (and I share it because sometimes trees don’t fall in the way you expect) is when he was dropping a tree near his home and it accidentally fell across the road. This is a very undesirable situation, of course, and Michael had to quickly cut it up and move it off the road before anyone came driving along. It was a fun lesson learned, and I enjoyed sharing a laugh with him over it. I really appreciated Michael's love of the outdoors and his willingness to tell about a time when things didn't exactly fall the way he expected.

  • Peggy Stevens, NCAR|UCAR Communications, Office of the UCAR President

The sudden death of Prof. Michael Thompson in Tokyo was too sad and too shocking to accept it. This was particularly because I looked forward to seeing him again on the next day.

The event implied a great loss for everybody related to helioseismology and asteroseismology because he was in the position to develop a vision for the future of the fields.

While he was a preeminent researcher, he was such a gentle person that he could easily talk to everybody, including students and younger colleagues like me. I deeply appreciated his contribution to science and his friendship, which can never be forgotten.

It is very difficult to find any words for his family, Kate and Robin, whose shock is too big to imagine. All I can say is that he was respected very much not only as a scientist, but also as a person, and that I am very proud of having interactions with him.

  • Masao Takata, Department of Astronomy, School of Science, University of Tokyo

We would like to express our deepest sympathy on the death of your Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer, Prof. Michael J. Thompson.

We recognize him as not only a prominent researcher in helioseismology and asteroseismology, but also a great leader, who had led groups of researchers in different fields at different places in the world, including Imperial College, University of Sheffield, High Altitude Observatory and your institute.

Prof. Michael J. Thompson had collaborated with some researchers at our department, especially Prof. Shibahashi, Dr. Takata, and others, keeping close friendships for a long time, and was supposed to give a talk in our department colloquium on 16 October, the next day after his sudden death.

We are very much shocked with this sudden terrible tragedy and grieve the loss of our friend. We are proud to have had personal acquaintance with him. His loss is a great sorrow to us.

Please convey our sincerest condolences to his family and all at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

  • Motohide Tamura, on behalf of the colleagues of the Department of Astronomy, Faculty of Science, The University of Tokyo

Although I knew Michael only a short time, he made a big impact on me when, at my team offsite, he suggested we perform a duet at the social event. I played guitar while Michael sang. It was then that we all learned what an amazing singer Michael was, and such a good sport. He went on to partner with others to entertain us with his songs that evening. We will all miss his smiling face, which often graced our hallway.

  • Lory Wingate, UCAR Office of the Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer

I had the privilege of working closely with Michael during his tenure as the Director of UCAR’s Operational Excellence program and as Interim President. Michael was energetic and passionate and cared deeply about the people at NCAR and UCAR and the merits of our collective work.

It was always a pleasure to spend time working with Michael. He inspired us to do our best work through his own commitment to precision and excellence. He was genuinely curious about each individual’s perspective and supportive of their contributions. Michael was always respectful, thoughtful, and a true gentlemen – his words and actions were measured and considered.

Michael was a mentor, colleague, friend, and ally. He was available whenever I needed sage advice or wise counsel - or just a laugh. I will greatly miss him, especially his keen wit and wry sense of humor.

  • Shawn Winkelman, Information Technology, UCAR Operations

I was deeply saddened to learn of Michael’s sudden passing and wish to extend my condolences at this difficult time. Michael was an esteemed member of the solar and space physics community and I had the pleasure to work with him for many years. 

I first got to know Michael when he became director of NCAR’s High Altitude Observatory. He was such a breath of fresh air. First and foremost, he was nice and a great scientist, and never was forced to choose between one or the other. It was evident from the start that Michael was going to build up the HAO team and actively seek connections to the outside. Michael recruited me to participate in multiple committees and I was happy to oblige because I believed in his inclusive approach to leadership. 

Michael visited me at the University of Michigan when I was a professor there. Besides his excellent and thoughtful talk and discussions, I also recognized his great interest in students and early career scientists, as demonstrated by the time he spent over and above what was expected.

Many of us appreciated Michael’s sense of humor, and appreciated learning from him over his broad area of interests. 

On behalf of my family, my NASA Science team, and myself we send deep condolences. Michael will be greatly missed.

  • Thomas Zurbuchen, Science Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters

As our community continues to pay tribute to Michael J. Thompson — a remarkably talented, insightful, and kind individual, beloved colleague, and friend — we invite you to share your remembrances. Please do so via ucarcomm@ucar.edu.

Tributes updated: 11/7/18

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