42

deep thought

cosmic cutie

In the first novel and radio series of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings demand to learn the Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything from the supercomputer, 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. The Ultimate Question itself is unknown.

When asked to produce The Ultimate Question, the computer says that it cannot; however, it can help to design an even more powerful computer, the Earth, that can. The programmers then embark on a further ten-million-year program to discover The Ultimate Question. This new computer will incorporate living beings in the ‘computational matrix,’ with the pan-dimensional creators assuming the form of mice.

The process is hindered after eight million years by the unexpected arrival on Earth of the Golgafrinchans and then is ruined completely, five minutes before completion, when the Earth is destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a new Hyperspace Bypass. This is later revealed to have been a ruse: the Vogons had been hired to destroy the Earth by a consortium of psychiatrists, led by Gag Halfrunt, who feared for the loss of their careers when the meaning of life became known. Lacking a real question, the mice decide not to go through the whole thing again and settle for the out-of-thin-air suggestion ‘How many roads must a man walk down?’ from Bob Dylan’s protest song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’

At the end of the first radio series (and television series, as well as the novel ‘The Restaurant at the End of the Universe’) protagonist 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 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?’

‘I always thought something was fundamentally wrong with the universe’

Six times nine is, of course, fifty-four. 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.

‘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.’

Some readers subsequently noticed that 613 × 913 = 4213 (using base 13). Douglas Adams later joked about this observation, saying, ‘I may be a sorry case, but I don’t write jokes in base 13.’

In ‘Life, the Universe and Everything,’ Prak, a man who knows all that is true, 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 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).

Douglas Adams was asked many times during his career why he chose the number 42. Many theories were proposed, but he rejected them all. In 1993, he gave an answer on alt.fan.douglas-adams: ‘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.’

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