42 – A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Sci-Fi’s Favorite Number – Homage to the Late Douglas Adams

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42 – A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Sci-Fi’s Favorite Number – Homage to the Late Douglas Adams

When Rafa Nadall beat Roger Federer last July in the longest final in Wimbledon history, he became the first Spaniard to win the grass-courted major in 42 years. This sent Spain into full celebration mode. It also caused no small dismay among Federer fans poised to witness a not-to-be sixth Wimbledon victory in a row. I suspect, however that most people stumbled yawning into their kitchens for another cup of coffee. Not me. I ran for my computer and opened a folder labeled “42’s,” where I have been collecting significant occurrences of the number for years. Before you pass me off as a total kook, remember that “42” was revealed by the late British sci fi satirist Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001), as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.

Adams’ science fiction “trilogy,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” consisting of five novels, began as a BBC radio series in 1978. The story starts with the destruction of planet Earth to make way for a new intergalactic bypass. Dismayed humans receive little sympathy – the notice, after all, had been on display for millennia in the basement of a public building. Where? Well, not Earth.

The quest for the meaning of life, the universe and everything is undertaken by a long-suffering computer named Deep Thought, built by mice. In an unparalleled demonstration of perseverance, it worked on the problem for 7.5 million years before concluding that the answer was the number 42.

From the number of major league baseball’s first African-American, Jackie Robinson, to the weight in pounds of the chunk of granite used in the ancient Scottish ice sport of curling, 42 comes up a lot in sports, even without considering scores. The New England Patriots waited 42 years to win a national championship; – it was 20-17 over the St. Louis Rams in the first Super Bowl ever won by a field goal. In October 2002, their forty-second season, Gene Autry’s now Anaheim Angels won their first world series.

2009 began as a year replete with 42’s. Three of the biggest stories – the Hudson River Hero, the peanut butter recall and the California octuplets – are inexorably connected to the number. Captain Sully Sullenberger had 42 years’ experience flying prior to landing safely in the Hudson. As of January 10th when King Nut issued its total peanut butter recall, 399 people in 42 states had been infected with salmonella. When Nadya Suleman gave birth to octoplets increasing the number of her offspring to fourteen and sparking a fierce debate about the unfair burden on the taxpayer, California was embroiled in a budget crisis. The deficit? $42 billion.

Traffic deaths are down in 42 states. As I do my final edit of this article, I hear Charles Gibson say that 42% of prostate cancers are over-diagnosed. I wonder, will 2009’s government list contain 42 foreign terrorist groups like in April, 2008?

This pop-culture, Holy Grail of numbers makes many appearances in history. Napoleon Bonaparte graduated from military school forty-second of fifty-eight – proving yet again that you don’t have to be tops in your class to make history, though a higher ranking may have helped somewhat at Waterloo.

Ben Franklin completed 42 years of public service. Our youngest president, Teddy Roosevelt, was 42 when he took the oath of office. Rosa Parks was 42 in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on the bus. 42 years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, China became the third nation to send a man to space. Jung Lee Way, aboard the Shun Jo 5, orbited Earth 14 times. I feel compelled to point out that fourteen is one-third of 42.

42,000 feet is the ceiling for commercial airplanes. Captain Cook’s journey spanned 4200 miles of ocean. $4200 was the average annual income in Hoover’s day, and there are 42 gallons in a barrel of crude oil. And, who could forget 42nd and Broadway?

Not all significant instances of Adam’s favorite number are happy ones. In February, 2003, NASA’s 42 year history of not having any trouble upon re entry ended with the loss of the shuttle Columbia. Lenny Bruce, Gilda Radner and Elvis Presley all died at age 42. By the way, Elvis earned $42 million in 2006.

It’s even in the Bible; Matthew lists 42 generations between Abraham and Jesus – separated into three groups of fourteen. Additionally, the forth-century Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea places Jesus’ birth in the forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus.

Here’s to the state of Florida! There are 42 bridges in the Florida Keys. National Geographic reported on the relocation of a 350 ton Florida Oak. Its root ball was 42 feet in diameter. In October 1995, all 42 members of the Governor’s Commission for a Sustainable South Florida issued a unanimous statement decrying the state of the Everglades.

Literature too has its 42’s. The wedding cake in Charles Dickens’ “The Magic Fishbone” is 42 yards around. In “Tolkien’s The Two Towers”, Gimley the dwarf slew 42 Orks in the battle of Helm’s Deep. There are 42 chapters in Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22.” That one makes me particularly happy. J.K. Rowling finished the Harry Potter series in her forty-second year.

My list contains many items which I suspect are no longer true. A study in 2001 claimed that 42 percent of women thought their dogs were better listeners than their husbands. In 2004, we heard that 42 percent of NASCAR fans were women. In 2007 we learned that 42 percent of blind American adults are married. In fact, I grew so weary of recording data from surveys that I began to suspect their authors of being hard-core Adams fans.

My research has left me with many questions. Do red blood cells still last only 42 days as Discover reported in 2002? Is the secret writing embedded in our currency still1/42 inches high as PBS’s Nova told us in 2002? Are there still 42 political parties in Iraq like in 2004? Does the US government still own 42 percent of Wyoming and New Mexico? Does Hewlett Packard still earn 42% of its corporate profits from ink sales, as reported in 2007? Didn’t you always know they were sticking it to us with those cartridges?

And, my personal life? A treasure trove of 42’s. That was the age my sister was when I was finally able to send her an e mail on her birthday. 42 degrees is the magic temperature at which our cold weather dehumidifiers no longer work. Our piano tuner says the ideal humidity for a piano is 42 percent – he doesn’t know about my obsession. The addition my father built on our childhood home was 42 feet deep. 42 was also the number of items on the hospital’s List of Patients’ Rights and Responsibilities when I had my gall bladder removed in 2006.

When my husband Googled my second album released under my maiden name, there were 42,000 results, the first of which was a heavy metal website in Everitt, Pennsylvania that wanted $50 for “Harvest” which they were selling as a rare Christian CD. I resisted the urge to write and tell them that I had a few left which I would be happy to let them have for the bargain basement price of … oh, say 42 dollars.

And then there’s astronomy itself. How many years does daylight last at the poles on Uranus, for instance? And nights? 42. This phenomenon is due to the fact that the planet’s axis is nearly perpendicular to the plain of its orbit.

I so wanted our nearest star to be 4.2 light years away. Initially, I thought I was to be disappointed in this. The twin stars of Alpha Centauri, after all, which are often mentioned as the closest outside of our own solar system are 4.3 light years away. But, wait! The famous twin star system contains a third, smaller star, Proxima Centauri, which is 4.2 light years from Earth – well, 4.22, if you want to get technical.

Two of astronomy’s most intriguing instances of Adams’ favorite number emerged after his death. In 2007, scientists discovered the Canis Major dwarf galaxy named for the constellation in which it lies, it is 42000 light years from the center of the Milky Way. The forty-second entry on my list is the Allen telescope array in the Cascade Mountains of Northern California, which has 42 dishes each twenty feet in diameter. Funded by Microsoft co founder Paul Allen, it began its search for extra terrestrial life in 2006. Somehow, I think Adams would like that.

copyright 2009 by Donna W. Hill

42 – A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Sci-Fi’s Favorite Number – Homage to the Late Douglas Adams

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