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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 in the longest final in Wimbledon history last July, he became the first Spaniard to win a grass-court major in 42 years. This sent Spain into full celebration mode. It also caused quite a bit of consternation among Federer’s fans, who were prepared to witness if not a sixth consecutive Wimbledon victory. However, I suspect most people stumbled and yawned to their kitchen for another cup of coffee. I do not. I ran for my computer and opened the folder labeled “42” where I had collected significant occurrences of the number for years. Before you think I’m a complete lunatic, remember that “42” was revealed by the late British science fiction satirist Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001) as the answer to a fundamental question about 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 begins with the destruction of planet Earth to make way for a new intergalactic bypass. Horrified people get little sympathy – after all, the notice has been displayed for millennia in the basement of a public building. Where? Well, not Earth.
The search for the meaning of life, the universe and everything in general is undertaken by a patient computer named Deep Thought, built by mice. In a unique display of persistence, he worked on the problem for 7.5 million years before concluding that the number 42 was the answer.
From the number of major league baseball’s first African-American, Jackie Robinson, to the weight in pounds of a piece of granite used in the ancient Scottish ice sport of curling, 42 comes up a lot in sports, regardless of the score. The New England Patriots waited 42 years to win a national championship; – it was 20-17 over St. Louis Rams in the first Super Bowl ever won by a field goal. In October 2002, in his forty-second season, Gene Autry’s now Anaheim Angels won their first World Series.
2009 started as a year full of 42 years. Three of the biggest stories—the Hudson River hero, the peanut butter recall, and the California figure eight—are inexorably tied to the number. Captain Sully Sullenberger had 42 years of flying experience before landing safely on the Hudson. As of January 10, when King Nut issued its total peanut butter recall, 399 people in 42 states had contracted salmonella. California was mired in a budget crisis when Nadya Suleman gave birth to octuplets, bringing her total to fourteen and sparking a fierce debate about the unfair burden on taxpayers. Deficit? 42 billion dollars.
Traffic deaths fell in 42 states. As I’m doing the final edit on this article, I hear Charles Gibson say that 42% of prostate cancer is prediagnosed. I wonder if the government’s 2009 list will include 42 foreign terrorist groups as it did in April 2008?
This pop culture holy grail of numbers appears many times throughout history. Napoleon Bonaparte graduated 42 out of 58 from military school – proving once again that you don’t have to be top of your class to make history, although a higher grade may have helped a little at Waterloo.
Ben Franklin completed 42 years of public service. Our youngest president, Teddy Roosevelt, was 42 years old when he was sworn in. Rosa Parks was 42 years old in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a bus. 42 years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, China has become the third nation to send a man into space. Jung Lee Way aboard Shun Jo 5 circled the Earth 14 times. I feel obligated to point out that fourteen is one-third of 42.
42,000 feet is the ceiling for commercial aircraft. Captain Cook’s voyage covered 4,200 miles of ocean. In Hoover’s day, the average annual income was $4,200, and there are 42 gallons in a barrel of oil. And who could forget 42nd and Broadway?
Not all notable examples of Adam’s favorite number are lucky. In February 2003, NASA’s 42-year history of no re-entry problems ended with the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia. Lenny Bruce, Gilda Radner and Elvis Presley died at the age of 42. By the way, Elvis earned $42 million in 2006.
It’s even in the Bible; Matthew lists 42 generations between Abraham and Jesus – divided into three groups of fourteen. In addition, the 4th-century Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea places Jesus’ birth in the forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus.
Here 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 tree. Its root ball was 42 feet in diameter. In October 1995, all 42 members of the Governor’s Commission on a Sustainable South Florida issued a unanimous statement condemning the state of the Everglades.
Even literature has its 42. The wedding cake in “The Magic Fishbone” by Charles Dickens is 42 yards around. In Tolkien’s The Two Towers, the dwarf Gimley kills 42 orcs at the Battle of Helm’s Hollow. There are 42 chapters in “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller. That one makes me especially happy. JK Rowling finished the Harry Potter series at the age of forty-two.
My list contains many items that I suspect are no longer true. A 2001 study claimed that 42 percent of women think their dogs are 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 got so tired of recording survey data that I began to suspect their authors of being die-hard Adams fans.
My research left me with many questions. Do red blood cells still only last 42 days, as Discover reported in 2002? Is the secret writing embedded in our currency still 1/42 of an inch tall, 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 of 42 years. That was my sister’s age when I finally got around to emailing her on her birthday. 42 degrees is the magic temperature at which our cold weather dehumidifiers stop working. 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 Patient Rights and Responsibilities when I had my gallbladder 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 site in Everitt, PA that wanted $50 for “Harvest,” which they were selling as a rare Christian CD. I resisted the urge to write to them and tell them I still had a few left that I’d like to drop off at a bargain basement price of…oh, say $42.
And then there is astronomy itself. How many years does daylight last at the poles of Uranus, for example? And the nights? 42. This phenomenon is due to the fact that the axis of the planet is almost perpendicular to the plane of its orbit.
So I wanted our nearest star to be 4.2 light years away. I originally thought I would be disappointed with it. After all, the Alpha Centauri twins, often mentioned as the closest ones outside our own solar system, are 4.3 light-years away. But wait! The famous binary star system contains a third, smaller star, Proxima Centauri, which is 4.2 light-years away from Earth — or 4.22, if you want to be technical.
Two of the most astronomically interesting cases of Adams’ favorite number occurred after his death. In 2007, scientists discovered Canis Major, a dwarf galaxy named after the constellation in which it lies, 42,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way. The forty-second entry on my list is the Allen Telescope in the Cascade Mountains of Northern California, which has 42 dishes, each twenty feet in diameter. A company funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen started looking for extraterrestrial life in 2006. Somehow I think Adams would love that.
copyright 2009 Donna W. Hill
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