The True Meaning of 42
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the supercomputer Deep Thought is built by a race of hyper-intelligent alien beings to determine the answer to “life, the universe, and everything.” Deep Thought determines that the answer is, somewhat anticlimactically, “42.” It sounds like a joke, but is there more to this answer?
Douglas Adams was an unabashed computer nerd and knew a heck of a lot about programming language and coding.In programming, an asterisk is commonly used to translate as “whatever you want it to be.” In ASCII language, the most basic computer software, “42” is the designation of an asterisk. A computer, Deep Thought, was asked what the true meaning of life was. It answered as a computer would. “42 = anything you want it to be.” Genius.
Why did Adams pick that number? Is there a connection to something the world doesn’t know about? Is the CIA and the MI6 involved in all this? Real aliens, perhaps? On November 3, 1993, Douglas Adams gave this answer to those questions.
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.
Later, talking to BBC Radio 4 Iain Johnstone, he explained that the number was chosen by none other than John Cleese as the punch line for one of his skits. The famed Python thought it was a funny number, and Adams borrowed it for his book, turning it into a recurring integer through all his work.
But that comment wasn’t the end of the mystery. Stephen Fry—a friend of Adams—also jumped into the debate, claiming that the latter explained to him why it was 42. Fry will not reveal the secret, but he says it is “fascinating, extraordinary and, when you think hard about it, completely obvious.”
Whatever it is, it sure has had a deep impact in geeklore. One example: The Allen Telescope Array—the radio telescopes system erected by Microsoft’s Paul Allen for the SETI program—has 42 dishes in honor of Adams.
And in Lost, 42 is the last number in the sequence that has to be entered on The Swan’s computer, which is also the sequence picked by Hurley for his winning lottery ticket, and Kwon’s number in the cave. In a Lostpedia interview, one of the show’s producers confirmed that this was indeed a homage to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.