March 29, 2011

On this date, the answer to “The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” was revealed…

In 2001, the brilliant British writer Douglas Adams left us Earthlings behind.

Before he left, however, he kindly informed us of the answer to the Ultimate Question — more specifically, the answer to “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.”

In case you missed it, here’s a brief overview…

The answer was first revealed on March 29, 1978, when the fourth episode of Adams’ radio creation The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

In that episode, Earthman Arthur Dent visits the planet Magrathea, where he meets Slartibartfast.

Slartibartfast tells Arthur he is one of the Magrathean planet manufacturers who helped design the Earth long ago, as a project for some hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings who happen to look like little white mice in our dimension.

Of course, Arthur Dent is a bit surprised to learn this. So, Slartibartfast plays an ancient tape recording for him that explains things. Sort of.

The narrator tells us that, millions of years ago, the mice (i.e., the hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings) “got so fed up with the constant bickering about the meaning of life, which used to interrupt their favourite pastime of Brockian Ultra Cricket — a curious game which involved suddenly hitting people for no readily apparent reason and then running away — that they decided to sit down and solve the problem once and for all. And, to this end, they built themselves a stupendous supercomputer…”

The tape includes the initial conversations between computer technicians and the supercomputer, which they had named Deep Thought.

They ask Deep Thought if there is an answer to “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” and, if so, whether Deep Thought could provide it.

“Yes,” Deep Thought says thoughtfully. “Life, the Universe, and Everything. There is an answer. But I’ll have to think about it...the program will take me seven-and-a-half million years to run.”

Fast forward to seven-and-a-half million years later. The descendants of Deep Thought’s creators anxiously await the computer’s answer.

Deep Thought tells them, after noting that they’re not going to like it.

He provides the answer in a series of lines that are interrupted by comments from the listeners. When Deep Thought’s lines are pieced together, they comprise one of the two most famous quotations from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the other being “Don’t Panic!”):

“The answer to everything…Life, the Universe, and Everything...is...Forty-two.”

The listeners are flabbergasted. Forty-two!?!

Yes, that’s right. The number 42.

Deep Thought helpfully explains: “Now that you know that the answer to the Ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is forty-two, all you need to do now is find out what the Ultimate Question is.”

When asked if he can tell them what the Ultimate Question is, Deep Thought says ‘no.’

But, he adds, another computer can be built that will: “A computer of such infinite and subtle complexity that organic life itself will form part of its operational matrix. And it shall be called…the Earth.”

If at this point you don’t understand the Ultimate Answer or the Ultimate Question, don’t panic.

Just listen to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series, or read the book version. Or watch the BBC TV adaptation. (Never mind the unfortunate movie version.)

It’ll all make sense. Sort of.

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Comments? Questions? Corrections? Post them on my quotations Facebook group.

Further reading, viewing and listening: by and about Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide...


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