"Forty-two" by Pensiero~commonswiki / Public Domain

For Math Fans: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Number 42

Sep 29, 2020

By Jean-Paul Delahaye

Everyone loves unsolved mysteries. Examples include Amelia Earhart’s disappearance over the Pacific in 1937 and the daring escape of inmates Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin from Alcatraz Island in California in 1962. Moreover our interest holds even if the mystery is based on a joke. Take author Douglas Adams’s popular 1979 science-fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the first in a series of five. Toward the end of the book, the supercomputer Deep Thought reveals that the answer to the “Great Question” of “Life, the Universe and Everything” is “forty-two.”

Deep Thought takes 7.5 million years to calculate the answer to the ultimate question. The characters tasked with getting that answer are disappointed because it is not very useful. Yet, as the computer points out, the question itself was vaguely formulated. To find the correct statement of the query whose answer is 42, the computer will have to build a new version of itself. That, too, will take time. The new version of the computer is Earth. To find out what happens next, you’ll have to read Adams’s books.

The author’s choice of the number 42 has become a fixture of geek culture. It’s at the origin of a multitude of jokes and winks exchanged between initiates. If, for example, you ask your search engine variations of the question “What is the answer to everything?” it will most likely answer “42.” Try it in French or German. You’ll often get the same answer whether you use Google, Qwant, Wolfram Alpha (which specializes in calculating mathematical problems) or the chat bot Web app Cleverbot.

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