Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything

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42 is the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything
42 is the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything

The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is numeric in Douglas Adams' series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In the story, a "simple answer" to The Ultimate Question is requested from the computer Deep Thought, specially built for this purpose. It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42. Unfortunately, The Ultimate Question itself is unknown, suggesting on an allegorical level that it is more important to ask the right questions than to seek definite answers. Indefinite answers to some questions are better left that way if it is the wrong question.

When asked to produce The Ultimate Question, the computer says that it can't, but it can help design an even more powerful computer (the Earth) that can. The programmers then embark on a further, ultimately futile, ten-million-year program to discover The Ultimate Question, a process that is hindered after eight million years by the unexpected arrival on Earth of the Golgafrinchans and then ruined completely, five minutes before completion, when the Earth is destroyed by the Vogons, to make way for a new Hyperspace Bypass.

The author was presented with many readers' theories about The Ultimate Question and The Ultimate Answer in his lifetime, all of which he rebutted with his own somewhat apocryphal explanations.


[edit] The search for The Ultimate Answer

According to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a race of vast hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings constructed the second greatest computer in all of time and space, Deep Thought, to calculate The Ultimate Answer to The Great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Distracted by a demarcation dispute with two philosophers, a "simple answer"[1] is requested. After seven and a half million years of computing cycles, Deep Thought's answer is 42.

"I think the problem is that the question was too broadly based..."[1]

"Forty Two?!" yelled Loonquawl. "Is that all you've got to show for seven and a half million years' work?"

"I checked it very thoroughly," said the computer, "and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is."[2]

In a story filled with much more neo-numerology, Deep Thought is compared with other computers. Some have huge numbers in their name: the Milliard Gargantuabrain and the Googleplex Starthinker. Earlier, the Heart of Gold is said to cost "only" five quilliard Altarian dollars[3] and that ship rescues Ford Prefect and Arthur at improbability level of 2267709:1.0 against. In the third novel, Zaphod Beeblebrox uses a factor of 375972XX to get to the Krikkit War Zone.[4]

After teaching Arthur Dent about Deep Thought, Slartibartfast muses:

I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied.... What does it matter? Science has achieved some wonderful things of course, but I'd far rather be happy than right any day ... [But I am not,] that's where it all falls down, of course.[2]

[edit] The search for The Ultimate Question

In the story, the Deep Thought computer has calculated the answer to the ultimate question to be 42. It tells the programmers that they should have been more specific in the question they had asked. It goes on to tell them that it will design a new "greater computer" to find this question. This new computer will incorporate living beings in the "computational matrix" and compute The Ultimate Question. The new computer is discovered to be the Earth, which the pan-dimensional creators occupy as supervisors by taking on the form of mice. At the beginning of the story, the Earth is destroyed by a race of beings called the Vogons. This is now discovered to have been just five minutes before the question was formed. The Vogons had been hired to destroy the Earth by a consortium of psychiatrists, lead by Gag Halfrunt, who feared for the loss of their careers when the meaning of life became known.[5]

Lacking a real question, the mice proposed to use "How many roads must a man walk down?" (from Bob Dylan's protest song "Blowin' in the Wind") as The Ultimate Question for the "5-D chat show and lecture circuit" (in their dimension). One of the pan-dimensional beings called Frankie Mouse admits:

I mean, yes idealism, yes the dignity of pure research, yes the pursuit of truth in all its forms, but there comes a point I'm afraid where you begin to suspect that if there's any real truth it's that the entire multi-dimensional infinity of the Universe is almost certainly being run by a bunch of maniacs; and if it comes to a choice between spending another ten million years finding that out or on the other hand just taking the money and running, then I for one could do with the exercise.[1]

In a 2005 article for the magazine TV Zone, Lance Parkin noted that Majikthise might have accidentally hit upon the Question the day Deep Thought was activated. "I mean, what's the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?" God's phone number is 42, although, as Parkin noted, knowing that is no use without the dialing code.

[edit] Arthur's Scrabble tiles

The Ultimate Question?
The Ultimate Question?

At the end of the first radio series (and television series, and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe book) Arthur Dent, having escaped the Earth's destruction, potentially has some of the computational matrix in his brain. He attempts to discover The Ultimate Question by extracting it from his brainwave patterns, as abusively[6] suggested by Marvin the Paranoid Android, when a Scrabble-playing caveman spells out FORTY TWO. Arthur pulls random letters from a bag, but only gets the sentence "WHAT DO YOU GET IF YOU MULTIPLY SIX BY NINE?"

"Six by nine. Forty two."

"That's it. That's all there is."

"I always thought something was fundamentally wrong with the universe"[5]

Arthur and Ford are simply forced to accept "What a Wonderful World" the Earth is.[6]

This 'question' is impossible with a standard set of Scrabble, as it has only two Ys. In the TV series[2] and book,[5] the set has been handmade from Arthur's memory; in the radio series Arthur has a "pocket Scrabble set" at Milliways.[1]

The program on the "Earth computer" should have run correctly, but the unexpected arrival of the Golgafrinchans on prehistoric Earth caused input errors into the system - computing (because of the garbage in, garbage out rule) the wrong question - the question in Arthur's subconscious being invalid all along.[5]

Fenchurch had figured out the ultimate question in a small cafe in Rickmansworth just before Earth's destruction,[2] but lost her memory of what it was in the universe where Earth survived.[7]

[edit] The exclusion philosophy

The exclusion philosophy first appeared in Fit the Seventh of the radio series, on Christmas Eve, 1978:

Narrator: There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

There is a third theory which suggests that both of the first two theories were concocted by a wily editor of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy in order to increase the universal level of uncertainty and paranoia and so boost the sales of the Guide. This last theory is of course the most convincing as The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the only book in the whole of the known universe to have the words DON'T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on the cover.[1]

The first two theories start the second novel (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe) and are confirmed at the close of the third (Life, the Universe and Everything) where Arthur encounters Prak (played on radio's The Tertiary Phase by the actor who was Arthur Dent in the 1 May to 9 May 1979[8] stage show"[8]). A Krikkit-robot administered a massive overdose of a truth serum to Prak, who was then sworn to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" which he did unstoppably. Prak confirms that 42 is indeed The Ultimate Answer, and confirms that it is impossible for both The Ultimate Answer and The Ultimate Question to be known about in the same universe (compare the uncertainty principle) as they will cancel each other out and take the Universe with them to be replaced by something even more bizarre (as described in the first theory) and that it may have already happened (as described in the second).[4]

[edit] The final 42 resolution

At the end of Mostly Harmless, the fifth and last in the series of novels, there is a final reference as Arthur and Ford are dropped off at Club Beta:

'Just there, number forty two,' shouted Ford Prefect to the taxi-driver. 'Right here!'[9]

The entire Earth (in every version of the Whole Sort of General Mishmash) is destroyed by the Grebulon Leader in a "most terrible catastrophe"[9] soon after this final 42 reference.

[edit] Adams and the choice of the number 42

Douglas Adams was asked many times during his career why he chose the number 42. Many theories were proposed,[10] but he rejected them all. On November 3, 1993, he gave an answer[11] on

The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought '42 will do.' I typed it out. End of story.

Adams described his choice as

A completely ordinary number, a number not just divisible by two but also six and seven. In fact it's the sort of number that you could, without any fear, introduce to your parents.[1]

Despite this, there is evidence of other explanations.

[edit] Base 13

Some readers saw that 613 × 913 = 4213 (using base 13). Douglas Adams later joked about his choice, saying:[12]

I may be a sorry case, but I don't write jokes in base 13.

[edit] Video Arts theory

Whilst 42 was a number with no hidden meaning, Adams explained in more detail in an interview with Iain Johnstone of BBC Radio 4 (recorded in 1998 though never broadcast[13]) to celebrate the first radio broadcast's 20th anniversary. Having decided it should be a number, he tried to think what an "ordinary number" should be. He ruled out non-integers, then he remembered having worked as a "prop-borrower" for John Cleese on his Video Arts training videos.

Cleese needed a funny number for the punchline to a sketch involving a bank teller (himself) and a customer (Tim Brooke-Taylor). Adams believed that the number that Cleese came up with was 42 and he decided to use it.[14]

[edit] The 1977 Burkiss Way: 42 Logical Positivism Avenue

Adams had also written a sketch for The Burkiss Way called "42 Logical Positivism Avenue", broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 12 January 1977[15] - 14 months before the Hitchhiker's Guide first broadcast "42" in fit the fourth, 29 March 1978.[1]

Burkiss Way, "Logical Positivism" sketch excerpt

An excerpt from Douglas Adam's The Burkiss Way sketch, "Logical Positivism" excerpt
Problems listening to the file? See media help.

[edit] Radio Interview with Douglas Adams

in January 2000, in response to a panelist's "Where does the number 42 come from?" on the radio show "Book Club" Adams explained that

on his way to work one morning, whilst still writing the scene, and was thinking about what the actual answer should be. He eventually decided that it should be something that made no sense whatsoever- a number, and a mundane one at that. And that is how he arrived at the number 42, completely at random."[citation needed]

[edit] Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry, a friend of Adams, claims that Adams told him "exactly why 42", and that the reason is[16]

fascinating, extraordinary and, when you think hard about it, completely obvious.

However, Fry says that he has vowed not to tell anyone the secret, and that it must go with him to the grave.

echoo, a computer scientist of Hasselt University, also claims, like Stephen, he knows "exactly why 42", and that indeed the reason is completely obvious for all of us but only a few are aware of IT. Matthew already knew:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said.

[edit] John Lloyd

John Lloyd, Adams' collaborator on The Meaning of Liff and two Hitchhikers fits said that Douglas has called 42[17]

The funniest of the two digit numbers

[edit] In popular culture

The number 42, in the context of the answer to life, the universe, and everything, as derived from Adams' work, appears in many cultural references.

  • When you punch in "the answer to life, the universe, and everything" into Google (exactly as typed, but without the quotes), the calculator function will bring up "42". [1]
  • In the discontinued office suite AppleWorks 6, when you begin typing on the 42nd page of a document, all the text turns white.

The following references to 42 may have a possible connection to Adams' work.

  • "42" is a song by the psychedelic jamband The Disco Biscuits.
  • The band Level 42 got the "42" from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The "Level" came from the tallest car park in the World (at the time) which just happened to have 42 levels.
  • "42" is a song on the Coldplay album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. This is not the first time Coldplay have lifted a song title from 'Hitchhikers' - on their first album they had a track titled "Don't Panic".
  • "Forty-Two" is also a song on Never Going Back to OK, the third studio album by The Afters. The song gives a Christian response to the number 42.
  • "42" are the last two characters in Rodney McKay's password, as revealed in the Season 4 episode "Quarantine" of Stargate Atlantis.
  • The Speculating Speckled Frog in the teen novel "Zahrah the Windseeker" claims that "The answer is 44, the machine was off by 2."
  • The title of a popular web-comic, xkcd, equals 42 when you take the numerical value of each letter as given by its place in the English Alphabet. (24+11+3+4)
  • The episode name of Doctor Who (2005) Season 03 Episode 07 is "42" in reference to the pub quiz subplot, to the real time duration of the action in the episode, and a play on the digits of the series "24".
  • In World of Warcraft a leper gnome in a tram station close to the dwarf capital ponders on "forty two"
  • In Galactic Civilizations 2 researching the technological victory, that transforms your race into gods will say "For some reason we do not understand, our clocks are blinking 42"

[edit] Further reading

Smith, Mol (2007). 42 - The Answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything. Maurice Smith, 178 pages. ISBN 978-0-9557-1370-5. 

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b c d e f g The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts. Douglas Adams, edited by Geoffrey Perkins. Pan Books, London. 1985. ISBN 0-330-29288-9
  2. ^ a b c d Douglas Adams. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. ISBN 0-330-25864-8. 
  3. ^ Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (TV series) Episode Two
  4. ^ a b Douglas Adams. Life, the Universe and Everything. ISBN 0-330-26738-8. 
  5. ^ a b c d Douglas Adams (1 January 1980). The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. ISBN 0-345-39181-0. 
  6. ^ a b Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (TV series) Episode Six
  7. ^ Douglas Adams. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. ISBN ISBN 0-330-28700-1. 
  8. ^ a b Neil Gaiman (1987). DON'T PANIC - the official Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy Companion. Titan Books. ISBN 1852860138. 
  9. ^ a b Douglas Adams (1992). Mostly Harmless. ISBN ISBN 0-330-32311-3. 
  10. ^ "In Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is the number from which all meaning could be derived.". CIO (Chief Information Officer) Magazine (2007-04-03). Retrieved on 2008-03-03.
  11. ^ "Why 42 ? - - Google Groups". Retrieved on 2007-09-01.
  12. ^ "BBC - h2g2 - A Conversation Forum". Retrieved on 2007-09-04.
  13. ^ This interview is contained on Douglas Adams's Guide to The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (BBC Cassette ISBN 0-563-55236-0) and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - The Collectors Edition (BBC CD ISBN 0-563-47702-4)
  14. ^ Several attempts by fans to find this particular video have been unsuccessful and it is possible it may never have been published or has since been deleted from use).
  15. ^ This is found on the Douglas Adams at the BBC CD set (ISBN 0-563-49404-2)
  16. ^ "BBC NEWS - Magazine - What on earth is 42?". Retrieved on 2008-03-22.
  17. ^ John LLoyd speaking at the 30th Anniversary Hitchhiker's recording at Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture on Wednesday 12th March 2008 at The Royal Geographical Society

[edit] External links

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