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42 – A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Sci-Fi’s Favorite Number – Homage to the Late Douglas Adams
When Rafa Nadal 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 was not among Federer supporters ready to witness a sixth Wimbledon win in a row. I doubt it, but most people dash to their kitchens for another cup of coffee. I don’t. I ran for my computer and opened a folder labeled “42’s” where I’ve been collecting significant numbers events over the years. Before you pass me off as a total kook, remember that “42” was published by the late British science satirist Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001), as an 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 begins with the destruction of planet Earth to make way for a new intergalactic bypass. Desperate people get little sympathy – the notice, after all, has been on display for millennia in the basement of a public building. Where? Well, not the world.
The search for the meaning of life, the universe and everything is guided by a long-lived computer called Deep Thought, built by mice. In an unparalleled display of perseverance, it worked on the problem for 7.5 million years and concluded that the answer was the number 42.
From the number of Major League Baseball’s first African-American, Jackie Robinson, to the pound weight of granite blocks 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 won the first Super Bowl by a field goal, 20–17 against the St. Louis Rams. In October 2002, in their forty-second season, Gene Autry’s now Anaheim Angels won their first World Series.
2009 started out as a year full of 42. Three big stories – the Hudson River Hero, the Peanut Butter Recall and the California Octuplet – are inextricably linked to the numbers. Captain Sully Sullenberger had 42 years of flying experience before landing safely in the Hudson. As of January 10 when King Nut issued its total peanut butter recall, 399 people in 42 states had been infected with salmonella. When Nadia Suleiman gave birth to octuplets, bringing the number of children to fourteen and sparking intense debate about the unfair burden on taxpayers, California was plunged into a budget crisis. Deficiency? $42 billion.
Traffic deaths decreased in 42 states. As I was doing my final edit of this article, I heard Charles Gibson say that 42% of prostate cancers are overdiagnosed. I wonder if the 2009 government list will have the same 42 foreign terrorist groups as in April, 2008?
This pop-culture, holy grail of numbers makes many appearances throughout history. Napoleon Bonaparte graduated from military school forty-second out of ninety-eight – proving once again that you don’t have to be top of your class to make history, although a high ranking at Waterloo helped somewhat.
Ben Franklin completed 42 years of public service. Our youngest president, Teddy Roosevelt, was 42 years old when he took the oath of office. 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 country to send a man into space. Jung Lee Wei, Shun Jo circumnavigated the globe 14 times aboard 5 ships. I feel compelled to point out that fourteen is one-third of 42.
42,000 feet is the ceiling for commercial aircraft. Captain Cook’s voyage spanned 4200 miles of ocean. Hoover’s daily average annual income was $4200, and crude oil contained 42 gallons per barrel. And, who could forget 42nd and Broadway?
Not all notable examples of Adam’s favorite number are happy. In February 2003, NASA’s 42-year history ended with the loss of Shuttle Columbia to no problems during re-entry. Lenny Bruce, Gilda Radner and Elvis Presley all died at age 42. However, 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. Additionally, the fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea mentions the birth of Jesus in the forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus.
Here is 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 original ball was 42 feet in diameter. In October 1995, all 42 members of the Governor’s Commission on Sustainable South Florida issued a unanimous statement against the state of the Everglades.
Literature also has 42. The wedding cake from Charles Dickens’ “The Magic Fishbone” is 42 yards around. In “Tolkien’s The Two Towers”, Gimley the Dwarf kills 42 Orks at the Battle of Helm’s Deep. “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller has 42 chapters. That one especially made me happy. JK Rowling finished the Harry Potter series in her fortieth year.
There are many items on my list that I suspect are no longer true. A 2001 survey 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 was so tired of recording the data from the surveys that I began to suspect their authors were hard-core Adams fans.
My research left me with many questions. As DISCOVER reported in 2002, do red blood cells still last only 42 days? In 2002 PBS’s Nova told us that the secret writing is still 1/42 inch high on our coins? Iraq still has 42 political parties as of 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 stuck with us with those cartridges?
And, my personal life? A treasure of 42. My sister was that old when I was finally able to send her an email on her birthday. 42 degrees is the magic temperature where 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. My father built our childhood home 42 feet deep. When I had my gallbladder removed in 2006 the hospital’s list of patient rights and responsibilities numbered 42 items.
When my husband Googled my second album, released under my first name, there were 42,000 results, the first of which was a heavy metal website in Everett, Pennsylvania asking $50 for “Harvest,” which they were selling as a rare Christian CD. I resisted the urge to write and tell them I had some left over that I’d be happy to pay for their bargain basement price of … oh, say $42.
And then there is astronomy itself. For example, how many years does daylight last at the poles of Uranus? And the night? 42. This phenomenon is due to the fact that the axis of the planet is almost perpendicular to the plane of its orbit.
I therefore wanted our nearest star to be 4.2 light years away. At first, I thought I would be disappointed. After all, Alpha Centauri’s twin star, often referred to as the closest one outside our own solar system, is 4.3 light-years away. But wait! The famous twin star system has 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 Adams’ most striking astronomical illustrations of his favorite number appeared after his death. In 2007, scientists discovered the Canis Major dwarf galaxy, named for the constellation, 42,000 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 searching for extraterrestrial life in 2006. Somehow, I think Adams would love it.
Copyright 2009 by Donna W. Hill
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