Nearly all science fiction fans share a meme about the number 42. This meme comes from the Douglas Adams book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of the great “modern classics” (an apparent oxymoron, but it is just shorthand for ‘a recent work that is so good that someday it will be counted among the classics’). The book is the first in the “increasingly misnamed” trilogy that shares its name.
The trilogy is “increasingly misnamed” in that it now has five books. The joke is that, in science fiction, trilogies are as common as aliens, spaceships and time travel. In fact, depending on the context, there are a two trilogies that have earned the sobriquet, “The Trilogy.” (Issac Asimov‘s Foundation series in the context of pure SF; and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings books in the context of SF + fantasy.)
In any event, the number, 42, is the answer to the question.
What question? Well, that turns out to be the real question. Now would be a good time to mention that the Adams “trilogy” is not just comedy science fiction, but silly comedy science fiction. Brilliant, wonderful, fantastic, classic (someday) silly comedy science fiction. Many (including myself) rank it as the funniest written SF comedy. So bear that mind as I try to explain…
It seems that many millions of years ago a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings decided to build a giant computer (called Deep Thought) that could answer the key questions of life, the universe and everything. The computer was the size of a small city and super-intelligent, but still it needed to think for a while to determine the answer. It needed seven-and-a-half million years!
And after all that time, it did deliver the answer. The answer was, “Forty-Two.”
You see, the problem was that the question was poorly asked. They had asked for the answer to “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” And Deep Thought was able, after a very long time thinking deep thoughts, to come up with the answer. But insofar as it was the second-greatest computer ever, it couldn’t figure out the exact question.
That required the greatest computer ever built! And that computer would be as big as a planet and would require ten-million years to compute the sought after question.
That computer was called: The Earth.
Turns out our earth was constructed by this other ancient race and is—or rather, was—merely a computer designed to computer the Great Question. Problem is that a Vogon Constructor Fleet came along and destroyed the earth just before the computations were done. (This wasn’t done maliciously, exactly, so much as to make room for a hyper-spacial express route.)
So the Question was never computed. All we have is the answer: 42.
Which brings us to Sideband #13, the last (for now) of the numeric riffs. At one point in the Douglas Adams books, there is a suggestion that The Question might be, “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?”
But, of course, the answer to that question is 54, not 42.
Unless you do the math in base 13!
6 x 9 == 4213 == (4 * 13) + (2 * 1) == 52 + 2 == 54
Which may suggest God has thirteen fingers.
Theologians can now spend centuries arguing over which hand has how many.