Forty Two

Forty two will never be the same since the great Douglas N Adams, or DNA, posed it as the answer to the question, in his most popular book (notice I’m not saying his best — I’ll reserve that distinction for his Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency books [1], and his lucid account of travels around the world in search of vanishing species : The Last Chance to See [2]), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy (I know this is superfluous — for anyone who is reading this will know this anyways). It has become a most often dropped science fiction reference/joke, in recent times. I cannot even think of anything else that comes remotely close.

Personally, for someone whose memory is atrociously unreliable, it has become a kind of solid point one goes back to. When I am pausing reading I tend to push it by a few pages to get a number that’s related — 42, 142, 24, 124, 84, … if I’m in the region. That way, I don’t need a bookmark — something that I invariably put in the wrong place anyways. So while reading Alexander McCall Smith’s Comforts of a Muddy Saturday (finally a paper book — incredibly, I’ve not really ‘read’ all of his 15 odd books that I’ve read, in the usual sense of the word ‘reading’, or only, as some people like to point out to me; but well — they’ve been proved wrong in the past), when I ended up naturally stopping at 42, as in coincidentally as opposed to deliberately, it started a little chain reaction of thoughts, as it usually happens with these things.

For all the popularity of Adam’s work, and the joke, I’m left with a feeling that we don’t know what exactly the great DNA had in his mind when he wrote that. Sadly, we’ll never know (unless he’s already talked about it in some interview that I’m not aware of, or his journals reveal anything, which I doubt, given the kind of disorganized guy he was). And so we’re free to speculate.

Of course it doesn’t have to be anything, just a wise/funny way of surprising people with the ridiculous. But knowing DNA’s depth (his ‘impromptu’ speech is one example), it seems a bit unlikely that it was just that. Not that [3].

Was it, then, DNA’s way of telling us that we should not get so obsessed with answers that we forget the questions — for answers may be proved wrong later. That we need to keep asking the questions, even when we think we’ve found the answers? That any answer is a wrong answer, and hence none is — an endorsement of post-modernist position (highly unlikely) — or the exact opposite of it: a joke on the post-modernist insistence that there are no right/wrong answers? Or just a joke on the questions that we spend our time going after, forgetting the sense of proportion that could keep us grounded in everyday reality?

I suspect DNA wanted to leave it that way, so that we keep wondering. If there were a heaven from which he could have seen us (although if there were one, there would probably be hell too, and the vengeful Gods are unlikely to put DNA — the radical atheist as he called himself — up there with the delusional saints — wait if there is a God, the saints weren’t delusional after all?), he might be laughing his pants off.

Time to go back to 42, page that is, and resume the Muddy Saturday on a bright Sunday afternoon. But how we miss you, DNA. There is no question about it. And no answers.

PS: It could even be DNA’s way of paying tribute to the other guy who took ridiculous to sublime heights: Lewis Carroll. From the wikipedia link on “forty two”, it seems like Carroll has a forty two connection.

[1]: The last unfinished book in the series was shaping out to be the best book he’d ever written — or almost written, before we lost him to an untimely death. Not that any death is timely (paraphrasing the AMS).

[2]: Last Chance to See is now made into a TV series, with another favorite of mine: Stephen Fry. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to see it as yet.

[3]: I’ve been accused in the past that I see meaning where there is none — the accusation coming from my better half, of course — and I plead guilty to it, but this is DNA, for god’s sake … pardon me the mixed metaphors.

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One thought on “Forty Two

  1. tubelite says:

    Mathematicians have this habit of numbering – mapping sets of things to natural numbers – which leads to some frighteningly elegant (and sometimes, just frightening) concepts.

    Every yes-or-no question in the English language can be assigned a unique number, by lexicographical order (or even sheer brute concatenated ascii codes) Now imagine a number whose n’th bit is the correct answer for question number n. This magic number contains the answers of all the questions in the universe.

    Imagine a numbering of possible universe-models. Say, a numbering of some family of cellular automaton. And in this numbering, CA #42 corresponds to our universe.

    Now you can generate the whole shebang from the rules of CA #42 and in a sense you have the “answer”, all of it. The question is.. what’s the question?

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