The name is of course heavily inspired by the late author Douglas Adams in his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy In the radio series and the first novel, 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 7 1/2 million years to compute and check the answer, which turn out to be 42. Deep Thought points out that the answer seems meaningless because the beings who instructed it never knew what the question was.
Why the number 42?
Douglas Adams was asked many times why he chose the number 42. Many theories were proposed, including that 42 is 101010 in base-2 binary code, that light refracts through a water surface by 42 degrees to create a rainbow, or that light requires 10-42 seconds to cross the diameter of a proton. Adams rejected them all. On 3 November 1993, he gave this answer on alt.fan.douglas-adams:
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”.
While 42 was a number with no hidden meaning, Adams explained in more detail in an interview with Iain Johnstone of BBC Radio 4 (recorded in 1998 though never broadcast) to celebrate the first radio broadcast’s 20th anniversary. Having decided it should e a number, he tried to think what an “ordinary number” should be. He ruled out non-integers, then he remembered having worked as a “prop-borrower” for John Cleese on his Video Arts training videos. Cleese needed a funny number for the punchline to a sketch involving a bank teller (himself) and a customer (Tim Brooke-Taylor). Adams believed that the number that Cleese came up with was 42 and he decided to use it.
Adams had also written a sketch for The Burkiss way called “42 Logical Positivism Avenue”, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 12 January 1977 – 14 months before The Hitchhiker’s Guide first broadcast “42” in Fit the Fourth, 29 March 1978.
In January 2000, in response to a panellist’s “Where does the number 42 come from?” on the radio show Book Club, Adams explained that he was “on his way to work one morning, whilst still writing the scene, and was thinking about what the actual answer should be. He eventually decided that it should be something that made no sense whatsoever – a number, and a mundane one at that. And that show he arrived at the number 42, completely at random”.
Stephen Fry, a friend of Adams, claims that Adams told him “exactly why 42”, and that the reason is “fascinating, extraordinary and, when you think hard about it, completely obvious”. However, Fry says that he has vowed not to tell anyone the secret, and that it must go with him the grave. In an interview at the Sydney Opera House in 2010, two minutes before the end of the show, Fry appears to be ready to reveal the answer, but remains inaudible due to an apparent failure of the microphone. John Lloyd, Adams collaborator on The Meaning of Liff and the two Hitchhiker’s fits, said that Adams has called 42 “the funniest of the two-digit numbers”.
The number 42 appears frequently in the work of Lewis Carroll, and some critics have suggested that this was an influence. They note, in particular, that Alice’s attempt at her times tables (chapter two of the 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) breaker down at 4 x 13 answered in base 42, which virtually reverses the failure of ‘the Question’ (What do you get if you multiply six by nine?”), in that the latter would equal “42” if calculated in base 13. They find further evidence of Carroll’s influence in the fact that Adams entitled the episodes of the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “fits”, the word Carroll used to name the chapters of The Hunting of the Snark.
There is the persistent tale that 42 is Adams’ tribute to the indefatigable paperback book, and is the number of lines on an average page of an average paperback. Another common guess is that 42 refers to the number of laws in ticket, a recurring theme of the books.