Science's debt to the late Douglas Adams
In 1637 Pierre de Fermat scribbled down the most famous marginal note in the history of mathematics. Devastatingly simple in its composition, it stated that there are no solutions to the equation xn + yn = zn , if x, y and z are integral numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.) and if n is 3 or more. Most intriguingly, Fermat declared that he had calculated a ‘truly remarkable proof’ to this theorem, ‘which this margin is too small to contain’.
For over 350 years Fermat’s ‘last theorem’ bewildered and confused. When the proof finally arrived in 1995 it came via a trawl through the extraordinarily complicated Taniyama-Shimura conjecture, using techniques Fermat could barely have imagined. It was stronglysuspected, even by the theorem’s solver Andrew Wiles, that Fermat never had any proof. In fact, he may just have been having a laugh.
When the author Douglas Adams died in 2001, at the age of 49, he left behind an equally intractable riddle, the burgeoning legacy of which is only hinted at in the recently published biographies of Adams - M. J. Simpson’s Hitchhiker, Nick Webb’s Wish You Were Here (2003) and the updated and re-released Don’t Panic (2003), by Neil Gaiman. Hardly marginal, Adams’ riddle was set at the heart of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979-92), ‘a trilogy in five parts’, of the human Arthur Dent, who, as Webb puts it, ‘is blown uncontrollably around the galaxy in the company of someone infinitely more hip than he is’.
Adams’ problematic theorem was provided in the first book in the series by Deep Thought - the second-greatest computer of all time and space - and is nothing less than the answer to ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’. After seven and a half million years of computation the machine sheepishly declares this to be ‘42’.
Such utter absurdity summed up Adams’ relentlessly godless take on the sheer strangeness of a near-infinite universe, translating it into the largest banana skin ever created. This viewpoint was only strengthened when Dent, in the next book, found out that the ultimate question to the ultimate answer was, ‘What do you get if you multiply 6 by 9?’ It was as succinct a put-down of the bounds of human knowledge as Fermat might have intended when he scribbled down what he thought was an impossible-to-prove theorem.
Adams’ friend and admirer the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins called him a ‘hero to scientists’, partly, it seems, because he provided cultural affirmation of the scientific world, so long derided as innately dull. By placing the universe and its irrational laws at the centre of his humour Adams riffed on esoteric ‘in’ knowledge and, in the age of computerization, ‘outed’ the general populace’s inner geek.
However, despite being far less ambiguous than Fermat’s possible prank, a quasi-religious stubbornness overcame large portions of Hitchhiker’s readers and ‘42’ began to take on a strangely meaningful tone. In the manner of a psychiatrist analysing a chicken’s urge to cross the road, it was quickly calculated that 6 times 9, the absurd question to the universe’s absurd answer, can indeed equal 42 if you are working in base 13. From here things deteriorated swiftly. Despite Adams’ pronouncement that ‘no one tells jokes in base 13’, the supposed importance of the number 42 threw many members of the scientific world into a numerological frenzy. For instance, when notated in binary, 42 is displayed as 101010, illustrating brilliantly, the fanatics thought, its innately confusing nature.
A huge step in 42 studies was reached when Cambridge scientists found that the Hubble Constant, which indicates the rate at which the universe is expanding, was identified as being 42 miles per second per megaparsec of distance. However, in a twist worthy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself, the Hubble Constant was later shown to be much less constant than was originally thought.
From the Gematria of the Cabbalists to Archbishop Ussher’s Adamsian dating of the Creation to 9am on Sunday, 23 October, 4004 BC, theologians have been guiltily drawn to the precision of numbers to shore up the sheer illogicality of faith, as well as to increase its horrors. Johann Weyer calculated in his Pseudomonarchia Daemonum (1583), that there were 7,405,926 devils and demons in Hell. Four years later Sigmund Feyerabend, in Theatrum Diabolorum (1587), carefully revised this figure to not less than 2,665,866,746,644. The chaste squandering of enormous numbers yields the peculiar pleasure of any excess, yet Adams’ 42 was in direct opposition to the use of overwhelming specifics to impart religious awe: ‘I just wanted an ordinary, workaday number, and chose 42. It’s an un-frightening number. It’s a number you could take home and show to your parents.’ Yet alarmingly, like a Pythonesque Messiah, the more he declaimed it as nonsense, the harder people sought to find meaning in it. From his own atheistic view of the universe he had unwittingly created a cult.
Perhaps this was not too surprising as Adams’ fictional ideas had a habit of slipping into actuality. The Hitchhiker’s Guide was an early precursor to the wireless Personal Digital Assistant. Similarly the Babel Fish, a creature that when placed in one’s ear translated all languages, became the name of various pieces of translation software. As for Deep Thought, it ended up transmuting into the computer that beat Garry Kasparov at chess. What’s more, Adams’ wildest flights of fancy often seemed rooted in scientific fact. When he spoke of a spaceship with an Infinite Improbability Drive superimposing itself on every point of the universe at once in order to get anywhere, he alluded to the quantum theory of the brilliant bongo-playing physicist Richard Feynman, which states that an electron travelling from one side of the room to another doesn’t follow a single path; rather, it follows all paths.
At times Adams’ prescience was quite disconcerting. When he added the seemingly throwaway line that the Improbability Drive only needed ‘a fresh cup of really hot tea’ to get it working, he bizarrely pre-empted research into quantum computing, for which caffeine molecules have been mooted as a possible computer ‘fuel’. Similarly when Seth Lloyd, a physicist at MIT, recently proposed in Nature magazine that the universe is itself a computer performing a vast computation the results of which are reality itself, he sounded eerily reminiscent of Adams’ description of the Earth as nothing but a giant supercomputer designed to come up with the question to the answer of Life, the Universe and Everything.
Perhaps the fact that 42, despite its meaninglessness, has become part of the scientific lexicon only corroborates the Borgesian hypothesis Adams puts forward in his trilogy: ‘There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.’
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