Was Douglas Adams Channeling Shakespeare's Muse?
There are a number of websites containing - some dedicated to - compilations of sightings of 42 in literature and pop culture. To date, I've not seen this oddity posted anywhere. More than simple numerology, or equations with numbers in base 10 and base 13, the following seems to reverberate on several levels.
In the 1970's Douglas Adams wrote the radio-play series "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" in which the answer to "Life, the Universe, Everything" was revealed by a computer to be '42', or, perhaps forty-two. This less-than-satisfactory answer led to the need for better definition of 'The Question' that was revealed at the end of the series through Scrabble tiles spelling out "What do you get if you multiply six by nine?"
The radio-play, the BBC television series, the books and the movie version of H2G2 tend toward diminishing the significance of forty-two. Douglas Adams showed his disdain for those wishing to read significance into "42" and "6x9". "It's a joke! Move on!", he was quoted as saying.
Well, perhaps there is more here than meets the eye ... even the eye of the author...
Another English playwright has alluded to 42 in a pop culture literary work, albeit in an obscure fashion. Ask the average person to name the first English playwright that pops into their head. The answer is likely to be William Shakespeare. Next, ask that person to name a popular work by Shakespeare. The 'popular' aspect is important as individuals may have personal associations with particular works by Shakespeare. When the question is, "Which do you think is the most well known Shakespearian play?", the answer is almost always, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Finally, ask for a (popular) quotation from Hamlet. Again, the most likely answer will be, "To be, or not to be".
Before leaping ahead to consider the next statement in Hamlet's soliloquy, a necessary digression into hexadecimal and boolean logic. (Recognising, of course, that Shakespeare probably didn't know much about base 16 and had shuffled off his own mortal coil long before George Boole gave his insights to the world. Prior to Newton had no-one ever been hit on the head by a falling apple?!)
The statement "To be, or not to be" is homophonic with the boolean statement "
0x2B | !0x2B". Converting
0x2B to base10 yields '43', which is close to '42', but disappointingly not the same. However, when one examines the entire boolean expression one finds a bit pattern (
0x2B = 01000010) OR'd with its ones complement. Regardless of the width of the register (i.e. number of bits), OR'ing any bit pattern with its ones complement results in a register full of 'set' bits (
0x...FF = ...11111111). Interpreting this result as an unsigned integer would be vague (how wide is the register?), but as a signed integer value and regardless of the number of bits, it is a single increment away from 'clocking over' to a register of 'unset' bits plus an overflow. Thus, this register represents a value that could be interpreted as the integer that is one less than zero ('-1'). "To be, or not to be" can be seen as a computerese representation of the value 42 (i.e. 43 + -1). Consider, now, the full couplet: Hamlet states, in an obscure fashion:
Forty-two. That is the question.
Thus, the observation that 2 English playwrights, living about 400 years apart, listening to their muses, have both expressed the value 42 in association with existential questions of "Why are we here and what is the relation of our life to the universe?" Shakespeare connects this seemingly mystical number with the question of existence while Adams associates it with the answer to metaphysical quandries. When one considers the infinite possibilities that Shakespeare or Adams could have selected to express their plot/point, this is a striking coincidence. And, the public has resonated and 'taken up' these works as 'popular' or 'cult'. Ask the average person about Twelfth Night or Dirk Gently and note the vacant look of non-recognition on their face.
Curious that the original versions of H2G2 also recognised another popular Shakespearian allusion wherein an infinite number of monkeys had worked out a script for Hamlet. How blatant can this obfuscation be?
The 'duality' of (my interpretation of) Hamlet's reference to 42 as THE question and Deep Thought's revelation of 42 as THEanswer is appealing in a yin yang sort of way. Was Douglas Adams hiding something?
There is more existentialism to be extracted from H2G2 in consideration of Scrabble tiles, homophonic interpretation and the ASCII code table, too.