36 Comments

  1. I actually found out the meaning of 42. It is the most uninteresting number that Douglas Adams could think of. Prime numbers are interesting. All odd numbers are interesting just because they are odd. A square or a cube is interesting. Every very small number like 2 or 3 or 4 has something interesting about it. Round numbers and very large numbers are interesting. 42 is just … 42, nothing more.

  2. Among us nerds, “42” is a common response to any question relative to meaning.

    In the Hitchhikers books, 42 is THE answer to the meaning of the universe. But if that’s the answer, what question is the universe asking? The question is “What is 9 time 6?”

    Adams intended this as meaningless, and was reportedly unhappy that 9 times 6 is 42 … in base 13.

    In baseball, 42 has an entirely different meaning. It was Jackie Robinson’s number, and has been retired in the major leagues as a whole (not just by the Dodgers). Players who were already wearing that number were allowed to keep it. The great Yankee reliever Mariano Rivera was the last player to wear 42.

  3. “Which still doesn’t ‘splain why two separate comics would come up with this within a day of each other.”

    We could put a detective to work on this.
    Say, Dirk Gently’s agency?

  4. Douglas Adams has been quoted as saying, “I may be a pretty sad case, but I don’t write jokes in base 13.”

  5. I have decided long ago to believe that there is a service for comic writers that provide suggestions for the basis of a comic – for those times the cartoonist is fresh out of ideas. Thus synchronicity.

  6. The problem with the “Adams chose 42 because it’s the most uninteresting number he could think of” is that being the most uninteresting number out there is, itself, an interesting attribute.

    I suppose if he considered that he could have gone instead to chose whatever he felt was the second-most uninteresting number (which would still be somewhat interesting for that reason, but arguably less so than the first-most uninteresting).

  7. Librarian, I’d think the service would make sure they only gave each idea to one cartoonist. More likely there’s a secret cartoonist newsletter, with a word-or-phrase-a-day feature, like APRIL 6: DOGS EATING CAKE

  8. Shrug. “Least Interesting” doesn’t mean devoid of interest. That 42 was the least interesting number to Adam’s may be an interesting aspect but there is no reason to assume that that aspect is anything but the least interesting aspect of any number. Which is probably an over statement but there is no paradox at all.

    42 is a bland number. And there is nothing paradoxical about being exceptional in one’s blandness. But 42 even actually fails in that. When looking at its blandness, there are plenty of mildly interesting aspects about it that pop up; it’s a product of consecutive integers. It manages to be a product of only very small primes while avoid both squares and large primes (that’s a hard task– small primes are likely to bunch up and most of the spots avoiding the bunching of small primes will have a large prime in it); half of it is 21 which is a very cool lopsided number, its an number that goes from very lopsided 21 to very even 42 in the simplest step of multiplying by two– I dont know of any other number that losses that much bang for that little buck. But none of these interesting points are noteworthy. And not being noteworthy, is in itself, interesting… but not noteworthy.

    No paradox.

  9. Well, to Ramanujan there were no uninteresting numbers, not even the numbers of taxicabs. And Douglas Adams surely knew the paradox of the least interesting number, as well as “The smallest number whose description requires more than ten words.” The best he could get was a number that wasn’t particularly interesting, compared to other numbers. It had to be a number that clearly was not the answer to life, the universe and everything.
    To a medieval mystic, 3 was the answer to life, the universe and everything. It was the number of the trinity, the first odd prime, and much more. It was the number of spatial dimensions. It was the perfect number (not to be confused with modern “perfect numbers” like 6 and 28). If 42 was ever given mystic qualities, I am unaware of it.

  10. Let’s not forget the fact that the “Get Fuzzy” comic is from 2006. How did Conley know that “Frazz” was going to do a variation on the same joke 12 years in the future??

  11. On rec.arts.comics.strips there’s a certain user who complains constantly about the Get Fuzzy reruns. Apparently there hasn’t been a new daily in years. Conley produces a new Sunday every now and then.

  12. Whether or not 42 is intrinsically mathematically interesting, it’s surely a very interesting number now, by virtue of it’s selection, due to being uninteresting, in a popular series of books.

  13. I think you mean “Technically writing”, not “technically speaking”, because as I see your comment it is written, not spoken. When Deep Thought gave the answer it was spoken, in the BBC radio series “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. I know Deep Thought said either “42” or “forty-two” but I don’t know which. But of course the actor playing Deep Thought read from a script, so technically writing, it must have been one or the other.

  14. Actually, come to think of it, I saw your typing, not your writing, so I should have said “technically typing”.

  15. “I think you mean “Technically writing”, not “technically speaking”, because as I see your comment it is written, not spoken.”

    I did not, for two reasons. First, of course, I offer a transcription of what Deep Thought said. Second, “technical writing” is a term with a specific meaning, one which would not encompass the transcription. Note that when Arthur generates the Question, that IS in written form, although not really “writing”.

  16. Robert likes to listen to books on tape (when we started they were) in the car when we are on long trips, so I have to, umm, get to, hear the books also (unless I fall asleep). So way back, he was listening to the Hitchhiker series read on tape. When the question of the meaning of 42 came up,I immediately (and jokingly) said 7 times 6 – spoiler alert – so I was wrong, it was, of course, 6 times 7 – made perfect sense to me.

    (When we met Douglas Adams with Terry Jones – pushing “Starship Titanic” I actually said (typical stupid thing people say) to Adams “you sound just like you do on the book tapes” – and immediately felt soooo stupid.)

  17. ” When the question of the meaning of 42 came up,I immediately (and jokingly) said 7 times 6 – spoiler alert – so I was wrong, it was, of course, 6 times 7 – made perfect sense to me. ”

    You should have listened more carefully.
    The Question is “What do you get when you multiply six by nine”.

  18. Also, skip the book tapes and get the original BBC radio programs. They’re available in MP3 format online, if you don’t mind the legalities. There IS a set of cassette tapes that is properly licensed, but I don’t know if it was ever distributed in the U.S. or was intended solely for Commonwealth markets.

  19. HHGTTG is one of very few stories available in multiple formats
    where I think that the TV version is best. The first TV version,
    that is.

  20. You have to have a healthy suspension of disbelief, because the conversion of Zaphod’s physiology from radio to TV did not go particularly well, due to budgetary limitations.

    I think it makes a difference what order you encounter the various incarnations. I got the TV shows first, then the books, then the computer game, and then finally the radio shows… with the result that the radio shows feel “wrong” a bit, because of the stuff that was in the radio shows that got dropped from the later versions.

  21. Arthur: I can’t remember exactly where, but I recall a documentary or such where Adams was explaining that he took great care to translate the material to take advantage of the medium it was being presented on, specifically the TV version, that it shouldn’t just be talking heads repeating the radio show. I had always had a great appreciation for the TV show, but as others have mentioned, it might be because I was exposed to that first. But after hearing Adams expound on his efforts, I realized that a large part of my appreciation was due to how well the TV show made use of video to compliment the audio. The first episode especially, little things are illustrated, there’s all the animation for the excerpts from the Guide, and all the various cutaway bits for throw-away lines: the chimpanzees having tea with the super-imposed text: “This does not happen!”; Adams himself walking naked into the sea whilst throwing away little green bits of paper.

    The TV show was well written, for the medium of TV, regardless of whether it was well produced, and that shines through.

    The radio show itself was ground-breaking in large part because Adams insisted on taking full advantage of the medium, wanting to make what was conceived as a light entertainment comedy show sound like a rock album.

    When Adams translated the material for the medium of interactive text adventure game, he again did outstanding work in the field.

    *Sigh*… RIP DNA…

  22. James Pollock –
    1 – I looked up online the solution to 42 and the solution you said shows up and Arthur Dent says it when he returns home.

    2 – I double checked with Robert and he also remembers it being 6 times 7 in both.

    3 – Popped into my head the next day, and Robert remembers the same – that the 6 times 7 was given at a different point in the books. I admit to not remembering all the details, but we both remember the answer being given when they are on the planet with the little girl princesses and they find out that earth is a big computer for the solution of the problem.

    4 – We both seem to find what we call “changes in the timeline”. Things that are different than we both remember. I mention one case of this – In the movie “A Touch of Class” Glenda Jackson goes to borrow a spice that she is missing, from one of her neighbors. As we both remember it,every time she said what she needed it was “or e gano” not “oreg ano” as we would say it and we assume(d) that was the British pronunciation. We know that on our Beta video tape of the movie it was the same. We know this as for months after – and again every now and then, we would pronounce the name of the spice as she did. When we saw the movie rerun decades later on TV she says “oreg ano” and there is a sound like a cut in, we figured they changed how she said it for some reason (sounds more correct to Americans?). So, we pulled out the video tape – and that is somehow changed also, again with an odd sound just before and after. So, we call these “changes in the timeline” as that is the only thing that sort of makes sense.

    So either this is a change in the timeline or when we find his cassette tapes of the books or have a chance to watch the movie again (we must have at least a DVD of it) I will check. If we do find the other answer where we remember it, I will let you know.

  23. I have current access to a copy HHGTTG, but not TRATEOTU, which is of course where the question is revealed in the books.

    So, here’s a paragraph from the Wikipedia entry on The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

    “The teleporter has meanwhile sent Arthur and Ford to the Golgafrinchan Ark Fleet Ship B, a ship of fools, which crash-lands on prehistoric Earth. They realise that the bumbling travellers are the real ancestors of modern humans. Arthur attempts to determine the Question to the Ultimate Answer of Life, the Universe and Everything by reaching into a Scrabble bag made from Ford’s towel and pulling out letters randomly, hoping Deep Thought’s computational matrix in Earth would have rubbed off on his subconscious. The letters spell “What do you get when you multiply six by nine”[2] before running out, although the Neanderthals manage to spell “forty-two” with the tiles, implying that it is they, rather than the Golgafrinchans, who were intended to be part of Earth’s computer matrix. After some brief contemplation, Ford and Arthur realise that this is, in fact, a detrimental “cock-up”, and that the Earth will never produce the proper Question, thus destroying all hope of ever finding out what it is.”

    That reference points here:
    http://kasmana.people.cofc.edu/MATHFICT/mfview.php?callnumber=mf458

    Anyway, my point was that the question was never “what do you get when you multiply 6 by 7” (or “7 by 6” because the Question was derived from Arthur’s makeshift Scrabble tiles… letters, not numbers. But, of course, it was also “six by nine”, and it has been “six by nine” since the early 80’s, at least. I have NOT listened to the second radio series, which, I think, is where it would have been in the radio shows, but I have read the books a good many times. It’s one of the books that sat on my “maybe the next book will be this one” shelf when I was still reading books to my daughter. By the time she was old enough to appreciate absurdist British humor, she was reading her own bedtime stories. She eventually read HHGTTG on her own, decided that she really liked the part about the missing pens, but didn’t want to read any of the other books. Alas, she got derailed into Twilight due to being a teenage girl at exactly the wrong time to be a teenage girl who reads books.

  24. James Pollock –

    Thank you. As I said I have never actually read the books. I tend to read non-fiction over fiction and had Robert not been interested in the series and gotten it on tape, I would not have known anything but the movie – which, of course we saw as wanted to. (And he had it on tape since due to cataracts, followed by cataracts surgery, he has had trouble seeing to read books as he also prefers reading something on paper to reading something on screen.)

  25. I recently finished The Salmon of Doubt, which is sort of a collection of bits of Adams’s writing, articles and blog posts, as well as some chapters for the next book he was writing. That was initially designed to be a Dirk Gently novel, but in some of the other bits Adams said that some of what he had seemed more like HHGttG, so maybe he’s rework it. We won’t know in this universe.

    http://www.gocomics.com/getfuzzy/2001/05/29

  26. When Dent attempted to figure out the question with Scrabble tiles, he got “6 x 9.” After Arthur escaped from the mice, they brainstormed questions that they could pretend were The Question, rather than admit to everyone that they had failed. They considered “6 x 7” but rejected it as too literal, in favor of “how many roads must a man walk?”

    Since both faux-Questions were generated incorrectly, I suppose they (and any other faux-Questions) have equal claims to be “not the Question.”

  27. “When Dent attempted to figure out the question with Scrabble tiles, he got ‘6 x 9.'”

    No, he got “SIX BY NINE”.

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