The weirdness of the number 42

Here’s Scientific American in a more entertaining mode. Remember when Deep Thought, the computer in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) spit out the Answer to the great question of life? It was: 42

Curiously, 42 does keep turning up in odd places:

The number 42 also turns up in a whole string of curious coincidences whose significance is probably not worth the effort to figure out. For example:

In ancient Egyptian mythology, during the judgment of souls, the dead had to declare before 42 judges that they had not committed any of 42 sins.

The marathon distance of 42.195 kilometers corresponds to the legend of how far the ancient Greek messenger Pheidippides traveled between Marathon and Athens to announce victory over the Persians in 490 B.C. (The fact that the kilometer had not yet been defined at that time only makes the connection all the more astonishing.)

Ancient Tibet had 42 rulers. Nyatri Tsenpo, who reigned around 127 B.C., was the first. And Langdarma, who ruled from 836 to 842 A.D. (i.e., the 42nd year of the ninth century), was the last.

Jean-Paul Delahaye, “For Math Fans: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Number 42” at Scientific American

And so forth. Lots of other numbers probably have stories like this.

Hitchhiker’s author Douglas Adams (1952–2001) said he did not attach any specific significance to the number 42.

Or didn’t he? How will we ever know?

If you are not familiar with the Hitchhiker series, wait till you get to the part where the computer spits out the Ultimate Question. Classic camp naturalism. Not that you want it running your life.

6 Replies to “The weirdness of the number 42”

1. 1
polistra says:

Most of those examples are meaningless, but the Egyptian laws are a little more interesing. 42 is 6×7. Both of those numbers are heavily involved in religious thinking, especially in that part of the world. The old testament is full of 7s.

6+7=13, the opposite of 42. Why are 6 and 7 important? No obvious neural or physical basis. We’re made of 5s and 2s, not 6s and 7s.

2. 2
Bob O'H says:

Just in case anyone is wondering, the whole ultimate question/ultimate answer farrago is proof that God has 13 fingers.

3. 3
ET says:

Just saying it doesn’t make it so, Bob. But we understand that is all evos can do- make bald assertions.

4. 4
JVL says:

Polistra: 6+7=13, the opposite of 42.

What do you mean ‘the opposite of 42’?

5. 5
john_a_designer says:

Without going into Adam’s overly convoluted, if not silly, plot one of its main character, Arthur Dent, who has been hitch hiking his way through the galaxy, finds himself stranded on the planet Magrathea.

On Magrathea… Arthur is met by a man named Slartibartfast, who… [in a] factory workshop… shows Arthur that in the distant past a race of “hyperintelligent, pan-dimensional beings” created a supercomputer named Deep Thought to determine the answer to the “Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe, and Everything.” Two philosophers representing a trade association, Majikthise and Vroomfondel, arrived and complained that the computer would remove uncertainty and end their jobs and demanded its deactivation. However, Deep Thought revealed that it would take 7.5 million years to complete calculations and reasoned that during that time they could argue over what the computer’s answer will be. 7.5 million years later the philosophers’ descendants asked Deep Thought for the answer, which it announces is the number 42. Deep Thought tells its creators that the answer makes no sense to them because they didn’t know what the “Ultimate Question” had been in the first place, so he suggested designing an even greater computer to determine what the Ultimate Question was…

Silliness aside, the novel does raise the question as to why humans appear to be “hardwired” to ask questions like, what is the ultimate purpose of life, the universe, and everything. I have to agree with Adams. If human beings are the result of some mindless, purposeless and purely accidental evolutionary process then questions like that are really quite pointless. At least I think that was point Adams was trying to make. Adams has been described as a radical atheist. Richard Dawkins dedicated his 2006 book, The God Delusion, to Adams (he passed anyway in 2001.)

6. 6
Fasteddious says:

Basic numerology here, just like Martin Gardner’s Dr. Matrix. Any number can be used to find weird and interesting connections if you look deeply enough.
On a related note, there is this proof that there is no such thing as a boring number. If there were boring numbers, the set of boring numbers would have a first or lowest member, and that would make it very interesting; i.e. not boring. Therefore there cannot be a lowest member in the set, and therefore the set must be empty. QED.