Star Spoofs

The Ultimate Question/Answer

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The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything has a numeric solution in Douglas Adams' series The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. In the story, a "simple answer" to The Ultimate Question is requested from the computer 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. Unfortunately, The Ultimate Question itself is unknown - suggesting on an allegorical level that it is more important to ask the right questions than to seek definite answers.

When asked to produce The Ultimate Question, the computer says that it can't, but can help design an even more powerful computer (the Earth) which can. The programmers then embark on a further, ultimately futile, ten million year program to discover The Ultimate Question, a process that is hindered after eight million years by the unexpected arrival on Earth of the Golgafrinchans, and then ruined completely, five minutes before completion, when the Earth is destroyed by the Vogons.

The author was presented with many readers' theories about The Ultimate Question and The Ultimate Answer in his lifetime, all of which he rebutted with his own somewhat apocryphal explanations.

The search for The Ultimate Answer Edit

According to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a race of vast hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings constructed the second greatest computer in all of time and space, Deep Thought, to calculate The Ultimate Answer to The Great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Distracted by a demarcation dispute with two philosophers, a "simple answer"[1] is requested. After seven and a half million years of computing cycles, Deep Thought's answer is: forty two.

"I think the problem is that the question was too broadly based..."[1]

"Forty two?!" yelled Loonquawl. "Is that all you've got to show for seven and a half million years' work?"

"I checked it very thoroughly," said the computer, "and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is."[2]

In a story filled with much more neo-numerology, Deep Thought is compared with other computers, some have huge numbers in their name, the Milliard Gargantuabrain and the Googleplex Starthinker; earlier the Heart of Gold is said to cost "only" five quilliard Altarian dollars[3] and that ship rescues Ford Prefect and Arthur at improbability level of 2267709:1 against. In the third novel, Zaphod Beeblebrox uses a factor of 375972XX to get to the Krikkit War Zone.[4]

After teaching Arthur Dent about Deep Thought, Slartibartfast muses:

I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied.... What does it matter? Science has achieved some wonderful things of course, but I'd far rather be happy than right any day ... [But I am not,] that's where it all falls down of course.[2]

The search for The Ultimate QuestionEdit

Deep Thought then insists upon designing a greater computer - incorporating living beings in the "computational matrix" - to compute The Ultimate Question. Earth was so large and mistaken for a planet, and the programmers took on mice-form to supervise. The Ultimate Question - and Earth - was destroyed by the Vogons just five minutes before readout - the Vogons had been hired to destroy the Earth by a consortium of psychiatrists lead by Gag Halfrunt who feared for the loss of their careers when the meaning of life became known.[5]

Lacking a real question, the mice proposed to use "How many roads must a man walk down?" (from Bob Dylan's protest song "Blowin' in the Wind") as The Ultimate Question for the "5D chat show and lecture circuit" (in their dimension). Frankie Mouse admits:

I mean, yes idealism, yes the dignity of pure research, yes the pursuit of truth in all its forms, but there comes a point I'm afraid where you begin to suspect that if there's any real truth it's that the entire multi-dimensional infinity of the Universe is almost certainly being run by a bunch of maniacs; and if it comes to a choice between spending another ten million years finding that out on the other hand just taking the money and running, then I for one could do with the exercise.[1]

Arthur's Scrabble tiles Edit

At the end of the first radio series (and television series, and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe book) Arthur Dent having escaped the Earth's destruction potentially has some of the computational matrix in his brain, attempts to discover The Ultimate Question by extracting it from his brainwave patterns, as abusively[6] 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?"

"Six by nine. Forty two."

"That's it. That's all there is."

"I always thought something was fundamentally wrong with the universe"[5]

Naturally, six multiplied by nine is actually fifty-four, leading to the comment about the universe having something wrong with it. 6 multiplied by 9 does equal 42 in base-13, but Douglas Adams categorically stated that he did not write jokes in base-13.

Arthur and Ford are simply forced to accept "What a Wonderful World" the Earth is.[6]

This 'question' is impossible with a standard set of Scrabble, as it has only two Ys. In the TV series[2] and book,[5] the set has been handmade from Arthur's memory; in the radio series Arthur has a "pocket Scrabble set" at Milliways.[1]

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.[5]

Fenchurch had figured out the ultimate question in a small cafe in Rickmansworth just before Earth's destruction,[2] but lost her memory of what it was in the universe where Earth survived.[7]

The exclusion philosophyEdit

The exclusion philosophy first appeared in 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.

There is a third theory which suggests that both of the first two theories were concocted by a wily editor of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy in order to increase the universal level of uncertainty and paranoia and so boost the sales of the Guide. This last theory is of course the most convincing as The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the only book in the whole of the known universe to have the words DON'T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on the cover.[1]

The first two theories start the second novel (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe) and are confirmed at the close of the third (Life, the Universe and Everything) where Arthur encounters Prak (played on radio's The Tertiary Phase by the actor who was Arthur Dent in the 1 May to 9 May 1979[8] stage show"[8]). A Krikkit-robot delivered massive overdose of a truth serum was administered to Prak, who was then sworn to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" which he did unstoppably. Prak 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 (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 theory).[4]

The final 42 resolutionEdit

At the end of Mostly Harmless, which is the last of the series of novels, there is a final reference as Arthur and Ford are dropped off at Club Stavro Mueller Beta:

'Just there, number forty two,' shouted Ford Prefect to the taxi-driver. 'Right here!'[9]
The entire Earth (in every version of the Whole Sort of General Mishmash) is destroyed by the Grebulon Leader in a "most terrible catastrophe"[9] soon after this final 42 reference. This opens the possibility that the ultimate question is simply something along the lines of 'Where does it all end?', as the book, series and lives of several main characters end then and there.

Adams and the choice of the number 42Edit

Douglas Adams was asked many times during his career why he chose the number forty two. Many theories were proposed,[10] but he rejected them all. On November 3, 1993, he gave an answer[11] 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."[1]

Despite these disclaimers, many other possible reasons for this choice have been put forward.

Base 13Edit

Some readers saw that 613 × 913 = 4213 (using base 13). Douglas Adams later joked about his choice, saying:[12]

I may be a sorry case, but I don't write jokes in base 13.

4213 is read as "four two base thirteen" or "four thirteens and two" not "forty two base thirteen" as the four is not in a "tens" column.

What do you get if you multiply six by nine? Note: if you are currently thinking that in base 13 6 x 9 = 42 which is 54 in base 10 then the author recommends you leave your computer immediately and do something else with your life before you realise how truly sad it really is.

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