Phrases from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a comic science fiction series created by Douglas Adams that has become popular among fans of the genre(s) and members of the scientific community.

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

The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.

In the radio series and the first novel, a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings demand to learn the 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. Deep Thought points out that the answer seems meaningless because the beings who instructed it never actually knew what the Question was.[1]

When asked to produce The Ultimate Question, Deep Thought says that it cannot; however, it can help to design an even more powerful computer that can. This new computer will incorporate living beings into the "computational matrix" and will run for ten million years. It is revealed as being the planet Earth, with its pan-dimensional creators assuming the form of white lab mice to observe its running. The process is hindered after eight million years by the unexpected arrival on Earth of the Golgafrinchans and is then ruined completely, five minutes prior to completion, when the Earth is destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a new Hyperspace Bypass. In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, this is 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 ultimate question became known.[2]

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 song "Blowin' in the Wind".

At the end of the radio series, the television series and the novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, 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[3] suggested by Ford Prefect, 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"[2]

Six times nine is, of course, fifty-four. The answer is deliberately wrong. 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.[2]

Quoting 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 mentioned, which states that this has already happened.[4]

Some readers who were trying to find a deeper meaning in the passage soon noticed that 613 × 913 is actually 4213 (as (4 × 13) + 2 = 54, i.e. 54 in decimal is equal to 42 expressed in base 13).[4]:128 When confronted with this, the author claimed that it was a mere coincidence, stating that "I may be a sorry case, but I don't write jokes in base 13."[5]

In Life, the Universe and Everything, a character named "Prak," who "knows all that is true," confirms that 42 is indeed The Answer, and that it is impossible for both The Answer and The Question to be known 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).[6] Though the question is never found, 42 is the table number at which Arthur and his friends sit when they arrive at Milliways at the end of the radio series. Likewise, Mostly Harmless ends when Arthur stops at a street address identified by his cry of, "There, number 42!" and enters the club Beta, owned by Stavro Mueller (Stavromula Beta). Shortly after, the Earth is destroyed in all existing incarnations.

The number 42

Douglas Adams was asked many times why he chose the number 42. Many theories were proposed, including that 42 is 101010 in binary code, that light refracts through a water surface by 42 degrees to create a rainbow, that light requires 10−42 seconds to cross the diameter of a proton.[7] Adams rejected them all. On 3 November 1993, he gave this answer[8] 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.'[4]

While 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)[9] 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.[10]

Adams had also written a sketch for The Burkiss Way called "42 Logical Positivism Avenue", broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 12 January 1977[11] – 14 months before the Hitchhiker's Guide first broadcast "42" in Fit the Fourth, 29 March 1978.[4]

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 he was "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."

Stephen Fry, a friend of Adams, claims that Adams told him "exactly why 42", and that the reason is "fascinating, extraordinary and, when you think hard about it, completely obvious."[12] However, Fry says that he has vowed not to tell anyone the secret, and that it must go with him to the grave. John Lloyd, Adams' collaborator on The Meaning of Liff and two Hitchhiker's fits, said that Adams has called 42 "the funniest of the two-digit numbers."[13]

The number 42 appears frequently in the work of Lewis Carroll, and some critics have suggested that this was an influence. They note, in particular, that Alice's attempt at her times tables (chapter two of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) breaks down at 4 x 13 answered in base 42,[14][15] which virtually reverses the failure of 'the Question' ("What do you get if you multiply six by nine?"), in that the latter would equal "42" if calculated in base 13. They find further evidence of Carroll's influence in the fact that Adams entitled the episodes of the original radio series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy "fits", the word Carroll used to name the chapters of The Hunting of the Snark.

There is the persistent tale that 42 is Adams' tribute to the indefatigable paperback book, and is the average number of lines on an average page of an average paperback.[16] Another common guess is that 42 refers to the number of laws in cricket, a recurring theme of the books.[17][A]

Mathematicians found a question whose answer is 42: what is the largest (rational) number n such that there are positive integers p, q, r such that


While some may argue that a planet sized supercomputer should come up with something more spectacular to show, mathematicians believe it is more interesting than the mathematically equally correct, but positively boring question: how much is 40 + 2. It came up in the 19th century studying Riemann surfaces in Hurwitz automorphism theorem[19] (Riemann surfaces are named after Bernhard Riemann, better known for the Riemann hypothesis, which if true, shows that the prime numbers are driven mad by infinite improbability). For a Riemann surface with negative Euler characteristic the number of symmetries is finite. What is the smallest number such that the number of symmetries is at most ? Hurwitz showed that the answer is the same as the answer to the question above, i.e. . This is closely related to the fact that the largest triangle that tiles the Hyperbolic plane has angles π/2, π/3, and π/7. Such a tile triangle has the smallest possible angle deficit compared to a triangle in the normal Euclidean plane [20]. In addition, the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal group (colloquially known as "the monster" group) is a (2,3,7) triangle group i.e. one that comes up as symmetry of a Riemann surface with a maximal number of symmetries and as a symmetry of Hyperbolic tiling made up of combinations of triangles with angle angles π/2, π/3, and π/7 [21]. Rumours that mathematicians are grey mice have been disproved, however[22][23][24].

42 Puzzle

The 42 puzzle. The shape of the islands in the background spells out 42, and there are 42 coloured balls

The 42 Puzzle is a game devised by Douglas Adams in 1994 for the United States series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books. The puzzle is an illustration consisting of 42 multi-coloured balls, in 7 columns and 6 rows. Douglas Adams has said,

Everybody was looking for hidden meanings and puzzles and significances in what I had written (like 'is it significant that 6×9 = 42 in base 13?' As if.) So I thought that just for a change I would actually construct a puzzle and see how many people solved it. Of course, nobody paid it any attention. I think that's terribly significant.[25]

In the puzzle the question is unknown, but the answer is already known to be 42. This is similar to the book where the "Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything" is known but not the question. The puzzle first appeared in The Illustrated Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It was later incorporated into the covers of all five reprinted "Hitchhiker's" novels in the United States.

Adams has described the puzzle as depicting the number 42 in ten different ways. Six possible questions are:[26]

(1) How many spheres are in the diagram? (six rows of seven is 42) (2) What position in the grid does the Earth occupy? (42) 42 as Interleaved 2 of 5 barcode.jpg
(3) The barcode on one of the spheres is the number 42 as an Interleaved 2 of 5 barcode
(4) Considering red-hued spheres (red, purple, orange, black) as a '1' and those without as a '0', what number does each line represent in decimal form? (In binary, each line reads '0101010', or '42' in decimal form.) (5) What number do the blue-tinted spheres (blue, green, purple, black) spell out? (Similar to a colour blindness test.) (42) (6) What number is represented by Roman numerals spelled out by the yellow-tinted spheres (yellow, orange, green, black) in the first three rows? (XLII = 42)

On the Internet and in software

The number 42 and the phrase, "Life, the universe, and everything" have attained cult status on the Internet. "Life, the universe, and everything" is a common name for the off-topic section of an Internet forum and the phrase is invoked in similar ways to mean "anything at all". Many chatbots, when asked about the meaning of life, will answer "42". Several online calculators are also programmed with the Question. Google Calculator will give the result to the answer to life the universe and everything as 42, as will Wolfram's Computational Knowledge Engine.[27] Similarly, DuckDuckGo also gives the result of the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything as 42.[28] In the online community Second Life, there is a section on a sim called "42nd Life." It is devoted to this concept in the book series, and several attempts at recreating Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, were made.

In software (prior to version 3.4) if =ANTWORT("Das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest") (German for =ANSWER("life, the universe and everything")) is typed into any cell of a spreadsheet, the result is 42.[29]

ISO/IEC 14519-2001/ IEEE Std 1003.5-1999, IEEE Standard for Information Technology – POSIX(R) Ada Language Interfaces – Part 1: Binding for System Application Program Interface (API) , uses the number 42 as the required return value from a process that terminates due to an unhandled exception. The Rationale says "the choice of the value 42 is arbitrary" and cites the Adams book as the source of the value.

The standard for Tagged Image File Format TIFF defines in its Image File Header bytes 2 and 3 to denominate a 'version number' 42. In revision 5.0 the specification explained the choice with "This number, 42 (2A in hex), is not to be equated with the current Revision of the TIFFspecification. In fact, the TIFF version number (42) has never changed, and probably never will. If it ever does, it means that TIFF has changed in some way so radical that a TIFF reader should give up immediately. The number 42 was chosen for its deep philosophical significance."[30] The later versions have eliminated the lengthy description, but kept the number fixed at 42 anyway.[31]

The random seed chosen to procedurally create the whole universe of the online multi-player computer game EVE Online was chosen as 42 by its lead game designer in 2002.[32]

In the computer game Gothic "42" is a code that deactivates all activated cheats. After typing "42" in a right place, text "What was the question?" appears.

The OpenSUSE team decided the next version will be based on SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop and named "Leap 42". The number 42 was chosen as a reference to the answer to life, the universe and everything.[33]

Cultural references

The Allen Telescope Array, a radio telescope used by SETI, has 42 dishes in homage to the Answer.[34]

In the American TV show Lost, 42 is the last of the mysterious numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42. In an interview with Lostpedia, producer David Fury confirmed this was a reference to Hitchhiker's.[35]

The British TV show The Kumars at No. 42 is so named because show creator Sanjeev Bhaskar is a Hitchhiker's fan.[36]

The band Coldplay's album Viva la Vida includes a song called "42". When asked by Q if the song's title was Hitchhiker's-related, Chris Martin said, "It is and it isn't."[37]

The band Level 42 chose its name in reference to the book.[38]

The episode "42" of the British science fiction television series Doctor Who was named in reference to the Answer. Writer Chris Chibnall acknowledged that "it's a playful title".[39]

Ken Jennings, defeated along with Brad Rutter in a Jeopardy! match against IBM's Watson, writes that Watson's avatar which appeared on-screen for those games showed 42 "threads of thought," shown as colorful lines spinning around Watson's logo, and that the number was chosen in reference to this meme.[40]

The Hitchhiker knitting pattern, designed by Martina Behm, is a scarf with 42 teeth.[41]

In The Flash, Season 4, Episode 1, Cisco in trying to decipher what Barry is writing explicitly says that what Barry says might solve answer to the Life, the Universe and Everything, which Caitlin suggests is 42.[42]

In The X-Files, Fox Mulder lives in apartment 42. This has been acknowledged by the show's creator, Chris Carter, as a reference to Hitchhikers.[43]

The number 47 appears often throughout the Star Trek franchise. When producer Rick Berman was asked about the unusual frequency of the number, he stated, "47 is 42, corrected for inflation." [44][45]