Friday, January 19, 2024

The number is ... :)

brass numbers 42 on door

Credit: Christina Hemsley Getty Images

Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's a marvel. His gentle sense of humor, combined with a child like appreciation of reality at deep level, resonates with me without question. Additionally, the number 42, the answer to what existence truly is, as computed by Deep Thought, has mystical properties waxed poetic by mathematicians of all stripes in a detailed Scientific American piece titled For Math Fans: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Number 42. :)

The search begins. :)

Everyone loves unsolved mysteries. Examples include Amelia Earhart’s disappearance over the Pacific in 1937 and the daring escape of inmates Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin from Alcatraz Island in California in 1962. Moreover our interest holds even if the mystery is based on a joke. Take author Douglas Adams’s popular 1979 science-fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the first in a series of five. Toward the end of the book, the supercomputer Deep Thought reveals that the answer to the “Great Question” of “Life, the Universe and Everything” is “forty-two.”

Deep Thought takes 7.5 million years to calculate the answer to the ultimate question. The characters tasked with getting that answer are disappointed because it is not very useful. Yet, as the computer points out, the question itself was vaguely formulated. To find the correct statement of the query whose answer is 42, the computer will have to build a new version of itself. That, too, will take time. The new version of the computer is Earth. To find out what happens next, you’ll have to read Adams’s books.

The Mystery of 42

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.

The Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed in Europe, has 42 lines of text per column and is also called the Forty-Two-Line Bible.”

The SA piece goes on with additional takes on the number 42 with emphasis on using higher math functions to explain why 42 actually matters, explanations one and all extending well beyond the skill set of yours truly. :)

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