Not too long ago I celebrated a big birthday. Okay, it wasn’t really that big. It didn’t end in a zero or anything, but it did feel kind of significant only because once upon a time I read Douglas Adams’s funny little five book trilogy that begins with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
I even reread the first book in honor of the occasion. I’d forgotten what a trip it is. The book, which started as a BBC radio play, is unapologetically weird and wildly imaginative. If you haven’t read it, you probably should, if for no other reason than just so you can catch all of the pop culture references you’ve been missing for years. It’s a pretty quick read, and you’ll learn how useful it can be to travel with a towel, why you should have more respect for mice, and of course, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.
It’s this last bit that convinced me to pick up the book again, because I recently turned 42, which according to Adams, is the answer to that ultimate question. There’s been a lot of speculation from fans over the years as to why Adams, who died in 2001, chose the number.
Some suggest he was paying homage to Lewis Carroll who included the number in a variety of ways in his works, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which in this writer’s humble opinion, should probably not be read at all.
Others suggest that it is mathematically interesting because it’s a pronic number, an abundant number, and sphenic number, which I’m sure is super exciting to those who speak mathematics a bit more fluently than I do. Quite recently it also became the last possible number under 100 to be expressed as a sum of three cubes, a solution which much like the answer 42 in the book, was many years in the making and came about as the result of an awful lot of worldwide computing power. It also led to a fair bit of excitement for the people who get excited about such things.
If Adams had some grand and elaborate reasoning behind his choice for the number in the book, he wasn’t telling. He said he chose it because it seemed like a funny number. And that really probably is all there is to it.
Personally, I was hoping for a little wisdom from it. I mean from reaching the ripe old age of 42, not from the Douglas Adams’s book, which is most useful for the clever jokes.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the second most powerful computer that will ever be spits out the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. The problem is that no one knows the question, so the most powerful computer that will ever exist is created. Complete with a biological component, this computer is called Earth, and it gets demolished in preparation for the construction of an intergalactic highway seconds before it spits out the long-awaited question.
Now, I’ve given this a lot of thought. The series does go on to reveal that the question is “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?” which I do speak enough mathematics to realize is a pretty funny punchline. But in all my gathered wisdom from my 42 years on this supercomputer we call Earth is that the question is more likely one of the following:
Why is it now such a struggle to lose a few pounds?
Why am I tired by 8:30 every night?
Why do I cry when other people’s kids leave for college?
Why does my wrist hurt?
Why, even though I feel a little bit more rundown than I did at 15, or 25, or 37, or even 41, do I also feel a little bit wiser?
Granted I don’t know what it’s like to turn 42 on any other planet out there in the wider universe so I can’t say for sure that it’s the answer to absolutely everything, but right now, 42 feels like a pretty good age to be, and I suppose contentment is as good an answer as any to the question of life.