Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Mystique of the Number 42

[Image: Answer_to_Life.png]

The Mystique of the Number 42

By Aziz Al-Hasheem
The Daily Magi
October 15, 2052


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 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.

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 mice to observe its running. 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. 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 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 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 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."

Six times nine is actually 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.

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, which states that this has already happened.

Some readers 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 Answer, and confirms that it is impossible for both The Answer and The Question to be known 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). 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 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. If you type the answer to life the universe and everything into Google (without quotes or capitalisation), the Google Calculator will give you 42, as will Wolfram's Computational Knowledge Engine. Similarly, if you type the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything into DuckDuckGo, the 0-click box will read "42". 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 OpenOffice.org software, if you type into any cell of a spreadsheet =ANTWORT("Das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest") (German for =ANSWER("life, the universe and everything")), the result is 42.

ISO/IEC 14519-2001/ IEEE Std 1003.5-1999, IEEE Standard for Information Technology – POSIX® 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 random seed chosen to procedurally create the whole universe including all the regions, constellations, stars, planets, moons and mineral distribution of the online massively multi-player computer game EVE Online was chosen as 42 by its lead game designer in 2002.

The Allen Telescope Array, a radio telescope used by SETI, has 42 dishes in homage to the Answer. 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. The British TV show The Kumars at No. 42 is so named because show creator Sanjeev Bhaskar is a Hitchhiker's fan. The band Coldplay's album Viva la Vida includes a song called "42". When asked by Q magazine if the song's title was Hitchhiker's-related, Chris Martin said, "It is and it isn't." 

The band Level 42 chose its name in reference to the book. 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". 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," and that the number was chosen in reference to this meme. The Chromecast produced by Google has the model number H2G2-42.

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