March 29, 2017

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


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.

Deep Thoughts answers:

“Yes…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 what it is, after warning 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 it. 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, published in 1979. Or watch the BBC Television adaptation, first aired in 1981. Then you’ll probably also want to watch the  2005 movie version.

After all that, the Ultimate Question and the answer will make perfect sense. Sort of.

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March 23, 2017

“Give me liberty or give me death!” – famous words Patrick Henry probably didn’t say...

Currier & Ives depiction of Patrick Henry
In late March of 1775, the American Revolution had not yet started. The “shot heard ‘round the world” was still a few weeks away.

But, to a growing number of Americans, a fight seemed inevitable if Great Britain continued to try to enforce its oppressive “Intolerable Acts” and taxes.

Some of the more militant American political activists — such as Patrick Henry — had begun urging local colonial governments to create militias that could be mustered to defend against or attack British troops.

Henry was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses at the time.

On March 23, 1775, at a meeting of that legislative body in Richmond, he gave an impassioned speech in favor of mobilization.

According to legend, Henry ended his speech with these famous words:

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Patrick Henry’s rousing address played a role in the House of Burgesses’ decision in favor of creating a Virginia militia. Henry himself was appointed a Colonel of the First Virginia Regiment.

However, no one knows exactly what he said in his speech on March 23, 1775.

Henry didn’t write down the speech or any notes about it at the time — or in the years before his death in 1799. Nor was any other written record made of the speech when he gave it in 1775 or during his lifetime.

So, why is the famous quote that ends with “give me liberty or give me death” attributed to Patrick Henry? And, why do many books and websites reprint what they cite as the “full text” of Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech?

William Wirt The answer is: because another Virginia politician named William Wirt created his own reconstructed version of the speech in a biography he wrote about Henry and Wirt’s version became famous. 

Wirt decided to write the biography about five years after Henry died. Over the next ten years, he corresponded and talked with people who knew Henry, including some who were present when he made his moving speech.

One of them was Thomas Jefferson. Another was a judge named St. George Tucker, who gave Wirt extensive notes on what he remembered of the speech.

In 1817, Wirt’s book was published. He titled it Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry.

The version of Henry’s March 23, 1775 speech in that book was based heavily on Judge Tucker’s recollection. 

Obviously, of course, it would be impossible for anyone to recreate, word-for-word, any speech given 42 years earlier, based purely on other people’s memories.

Yet, what seemed to annoy a number of people who knew Henry much more than Wirt’s poetic license in recreating Henry’s speech was his overly idealized portrayal of the man.

Culpeper Minutemen 'Liberty or Death' flagJefferson called Wirt’s biography “a poor book” that gave “an imperfect idea of Patrick Henry.”

John Taylor, another Virginia statesman who knew Henry, called it “a splendid novel.” 

Comments from other contemporaries of Henry were even less kind.

Nonetheless, Wirt’s book was extremely popular and, over the years, his version of the speech that Henry gave on March 23, 1775 came to be thought of and portrayed as a real transcript — until modern historians and quote mavens began to look into it.

Experts on American history and quotations who have carefully studied the facts generally dismiss the idea that Wirt’s recreation of the entire speech is or could be accurate.

One researcher quoted in a post on the Colonial Williamsburg website concluded that “generations have been deceived into believing in the literalness” of the speech.

In The Yale Book of Quotations, Editor Fred Shapiro calls the text of the speech as reconstructed by Wirt “questionable.”

Ralph Keyes, author of The Quote Verifier and many other well-researched books about quotations and language, summed up his verdict in an NPR radio interview in 2006. When asked if Patrick Henry actually said “give me liberty or give me death,” Keyes answered: “Unfortunately, he didn’t.”

Keyes said his conclusion is that “William Wirt…put ‘give me liberty or give me death’ in Henry’s mouth.”

Other experts think that Henry might have said “give me liberty or give me death” or at least uttered the phrase “liberty or death.”

Those are certainly memorable words. And, later in 1775, “LIBERTY OR DEATH” was used as a slogan on the flag of the Culpeper Minute Men Battalion, a unit of Patrick Henry’s First Virginia Regiment.

However, the rest of the alleged final sentences at the end of the speech Henry gave on March 23, 1775 — and the “full text” of the speech reprinted by many books and websites — should probably be credited to either William Wirt or St. George Tucker instead of Patrick Henry.

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March 08, 2017

On this date, Ronald Reagan gave his famous “evil empire” speech—but he didn’t coin the phrase…

Ronald Reagan giving his evil empire speech 1983
If you’re like me, you’re a tired of hearing about Donald Trump and Russia.

However, as I was editing this post today on March 8, 2017, I couldn’t help being struck by the fact that Trump’s political hero, President Ronald Reagan, had a very different view of Russia than “The Donald.”

It was on March 8, 1983, that President Reagan gave the speech in which he famously called the Soviet Union “an evil empire.”

At the time, the Cold War and nuclear arms race between the United States and the USSR was still ongoing.

Reagan was vehemently opposed to recent calls by dovish political groups for a “nuclear freeze” that would limit America’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

In fact, he wanted to increase the number of American nuclear missiles in Western Europe under the auspices of NATO, claiming that it was a necessary response to the Soviets’ deployment of nuclear missiles in Eastern Europe.

Reagan reiterated these views in his speech on March 8, 1983.

Ironically, it was an address given to a convention of Christians: the annual meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals, held that year in Orlando, Florida.

In a part of the speech that dealt with the nuclear freeze proposal, Reagan said:

“I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority...In your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation blithely to declare yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil.”

Although some books and websites suggest that Reagan coined “evil empire,” that’s not quite true.

I did a Google “NGram search” on the phrase and found a handful of uses in sources that date back as far as 1831. (A Google NGRAM search creates a graph showing the number of uses of a word or phrase in tens of thousands of books and magazines published during the past few centuries, along with links to see digitized copies of the sources.)

NGRAM search for 'evil empire'A literary publication called “The Anglo-Genevan Critical Journal for 1831” has an interesting early use of “evil empire” that some observers might deem relevant to modern American politics.

It says:

"The wicked misleader, who is allowed to go unanswered, will obtain a most despotic and evil empire over the minds of a whole people: and the minister of a Government, who neglects the press, is deserving of the deepest execration."

There’s a British history journal published in 1917 that calls Austria “the evil Empire of the Hapsburgs.”

“Evil empire” is also used in an anti-gambling Christian tract published in 1938.

There have probably been a smattering of other uses scattered throughout history and literature over the centuries.

But President Reagan definitely popularized the phrase and gave it its modern historic meaning.

Soon after the words left his lips during his March 8, 1983 address, it was being quoted, discussed and analyzed in news reports, embraced by Reagan supporters, and criticized by his opponents.

Thus, Reagan’s use ultimately became both one of his most famous and most infamous quotations and it’s what made the phrase a common part of our language. (See how the graph line in the NGRAM shown at right zooms upward after 1983.)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union steadily crumbled and ultimately split apart.

The Cold War faded away and, although the threat of “mutually assured destruction” didn’t disappear, it became significantly less likely.

In recent years, some historians have credited Reagan’s hard-line stance against a nuclear freeze — and even his use of the term “evil empire” — as reasons for the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. (You can read more about that theory in the “Evil empire” entry in Wikipedia.)

So, was Reagan right on the issue of nuclear weapons? I don’t know.

But as someone who grew up during the Cold War decades, I do know I was relieved that the nuclear war between the US and USSR that many people thought was inevitable didn’t happen. Those “duck and cover” drills I practiced at my elementary school in the 1950s never quite made me feel optimistic about the odds of surviving.

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