"Forty-two!" yelled Loonquawl. "Is that all you've got to show for seven and a half million years' work?"
"I checked it very thoroughly," said the computer, "and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is."
WARNING: Potential Spoilers Ahead
Secondary Warning: If you've never read the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, you will be thoroughly confused.
In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy "trilogy"1, by Douglas Adams, 42 is the answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe, and everything. However, to be more precise, the answer is "forty-two", as the digits themselves never appear in any of the books2.
What's the story?
Eventually, all sentient beings will ask themselves "What is the meaning of life?" Unfortunately, we pathetic humans here on Earth must leave this question to philosophers and religious leaders. Alien life forms (in this case, certain hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings, a.k.a., mice) have better technology at their disposal, so decided to build the greatest supercomputer ever conceived to answer this age old question. This computer was named Deep Thought. After being asked the question, Deep Thought told his creators that he needed some time to perform his calculations, so seven and a half million years later he proudly announces that the answer (though I don't think you're going to like it) is "forty-two".
The problem was, they never really knew what the real question was. So with the help of Deep Thought, a second computer was created to determine the question. This computer was called Earth, and instead of electrodes and transistors, it would calculate with the help of living beings. Unfortunately, due to some problems with the Golgafrinchams and the with Vogons destroying the planet just seconds before the question was to be determined (to make room for an hyperspace bypass, of course) the reader never actually figures out what 42 is the answer to.
Six by nine? Forty-two? I've always felt that there was something fundamentally wrong with the Universe. -- Arthur Dent
Being the last living person to escape Earth before its destruction, Arthur Dent is petitioned by two mice, Frankie and Benjy (who are actually 3-dimensional extensions of the pre-mentioned pan-dimensional beings) for his brain so that they can extract the question. Luckily for Arthur, he escapes with his brain to become a famous sandwich-maker on a faraway world. We later learn by random letter selection from a Scrabble game that the question may or may not be "WHAT DO YOU GET IF YOU MULTIPLY SIX BY NINE?" Since we all learned in grade school that 6 * 9 = 54, this paradox leads to great speculation by followers of Adams's work as to the meaning of all it all - which, ironically is exactly what we are trying to determine.
The mice are left to make up a question (after all, they've got lots of talk show interviews lined up to share their new revelations). Some of the suggested questions are:
Speculation and Interesting Facts on 42
or "Nobody writes jokes in base 13"
Using base 13 (instead of base 10) 6*9 does equal 42 (4210 = 5613). See convert any number to decimal.
Google is full of more Ph.D.s with degrees in computer science and mathematics than you can shake a stick at. They have come to the same conclusion that the answer to the ultimate question is 42. Need proof? Do a search for "answer to life, the universe, and everything" on Google (or just follow this link: http://www.google.com/search?q=answer%20to%20life%2C%20the%20universe%2C%20and%20everything).
Deep Thought had an arithmetic precedence error. If 6 is defined as 1+5 and 9 is defined as 8+1 then 6*9 is defined as (1+5) * (8+1). However if the parenthesis are removed a computer will read the problem as 1+5*8+1 and do the multiplication first resulting in 1+(5*8)+1 = 42.
The phrase "answer to life the universe and everything" has 42 characters (including spaces)
In binary, 42 is 101010, which is the ASCII code for the asterisk (*). It is common knowledge that the asterisk is used as a wildcard in searching which basically means search for "everything"
- 2 Kings 2:23-24 And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.
- Numbers 35:6 - And among the cities which ye shall give unto the Levites there shall be six cities for refuge, which ye shall appoint for the manslayer, that he may flee thither: and to them ye shall add forty and two cities.
- Matthew 1:17 - So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations. - That's 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus.
- Revelation 11:2 - But the court which is without the temple leave out, and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles: and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months.
- Revelation 12:6 - And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days (1260 days = 42 months).
- Revelation 13:5 - And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months.
- The Torah is broken into columns, each of which always have 42 lines of Hebrew
- The Gutenberg Bible contained 42 lines per page
- The city of Jerusalem covers an area of 42 square miles
- There are 42 dots on a pair of dice
- There are 42 eyes in a deck of playing cards (remember the one-eyed jacks)
- There are 42 countries in the game of Risk
- There are 42 gallons in a barrel of oil
- Fox Mulder's apartment number is 42 (this was purposeful)
- There are 42 decks on the Enterprise starship in Star Trek the Next Generation
- The Statue of Liberty's left arm is 42 ft long.
- A marathon is 42 km
- A 42 mph wind knocked down the Tacoma Bridge
- The Cuban Missile Crisis resulted over the placement of 42 Soviet missiles in Cuba
- Elvis died at the age of 42 (Or did he? You might run across The King somewhere in the galaxy...)
- Dogs have 42 teeth
- 4^2 = 2^4 (other than 24, 42 is the only number that this rule can be applied to its digits)
- In Japanese, the digits of 42 are shi (4) ni (2). Shi-ni means "to die", or in other words, the meaning of life is death.
- ... this list could go on forever. I'll spare you.
Now that you've heard all the theories, here's the real deal
In a Usenet post, Douglas Adams provides us with the following answer to the meaning of 42:
The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an
ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations,
base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought '42 will do'. I typed it out. End of story.
Or is it the end of the story? Perhaps he knew something we never will. Perhaps he took The Meaning of Liff with him to his grave.
R.I.P. Mr. Adams.
1 Adams seems to have trouble with math, much like other science fiction/fantasy authors. Trilogy != 3 books.
2 ...other than as page numbers.
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Series