Phrases from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Phrases from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a comic science fiction series created by Douglas Adams that has become popular among fans of the genre(s) as well as members of the scientific community. Certain phrases from it are widely recognised and often used in reference to, but outside the context of, the source material. Many writers on popular science, such as Fred Alan Wolf, Paul Davies, Richard Dawkins and Michio Kaku, have used quotations from Adams' work in their books to illustrate facts about cosmology or philosophy.


Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (42)

The Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.

In the first novel and radio series, a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings demand to learn the Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything from the supercomputer, Deep Thought, specially built for this purpose. It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42. The Ultimate Question itself is unknown.

When asked to produce The Ultimate Question, the computer says that it cannot; however, it can help to design an even more powerful computer, the Earth, that can. The programmers then embark on a further ten-million-year program to discover The Ultimate Question. This new computer will incorporate living beings in the "computational matrix", with the pan-dimensional creators assuming the form of mice. The process is hindered after eight million years by the unexpected arrival on Earth of the Golgafrinchans and then is ruined completely, five minutes before completion, when the Earth is destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a new Hyperspace Bypass. This is later revealed to have been a ruse: the Vogons had been hired to destroy the Earth by a consortium of psychiatrists, led by Gag Halfrunt, who feared for the loss of their careers when the meaning of life became known.[1]

Lacking a real question, the mice decide not to go through the whole thing again and settle for the out-of-thin-air suggestion "How many roads must a man walk down?" from Bob Dylan's protest song "Blowin' in the Wind".

At the end of the radio series (and television series, as well as the novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe) Arthur Dent, having escaped the Earth's destruction, potentially has some of the computational matrix in his brain. He attempts to discover The Ultimate Question by extracting it from his brainwave patterns, as abusively[2] suggested by Marvin the Paranoid Android, when a Scrabble-playing caveman spells out forty two. Arthur pulls random letters from a bag, but only gets the sentence "What do you get if you multiply six by nine?"

"Six by nine. Forty two."

"That's it. That's all there is."

"I always thought something was fundamentally wrong with the universe"[1]

Six times nine is, of course, fifty-four. The program on the "Earth computer" should have run correctly, but the unexpected arrival of the Golgafrinchans on prehistoric Earth caused input errors into the system—computing (because of the garbage in, garbage out rule) the wrong question—the question in Arthur's subconscious being invalid all along.[1]

Quoting Fit the Seventh of the radio series, on Christmas Eve, 1978:

Narrator: 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.[3]

Some readers subsequently noticed that 613 × 913 = 4213 (using base 13). Douglas Adams later joked about this observation, saying, "I may be a sorry case, but I don't write jokes in base 13."[4]

In Life, the Universe and Everything, Prak, a man who knows all that is true, confirms that 42 is indeed The Ultimate Answer, and confirms that it is impossible for both The Ultimate Answer and The Ultimate Question to be known about in the same universe (compare the uncertainty principle) as they will cancel each other out and take the Universe with them to be replaced by something even more bizarre (as described in the first theory) and that it may have already happened (as described in the second).[5] Though the question is never found, 42 is shown as the table number at which Arthur and his friends sit when they arrive at Milliways at the end of the radio series. Likewise, Mostly Harmless ends when Arthur stops at a street address identified by his cry of, "There, number 42!" and enters the club Beta, owned by Stavro Mueller, who is apparently the incarnation of Agrajag located at Stavromula Beta. Shortly after, the earth is destroyed in all existing incarnations.

The number 42

Douglas Adams was asked many times why he chose the number 42. Many theories were proposed,[6] but he rejected them all. On November 3, 1993, he gave an answer[7] on

The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought '42 will do' I typed it out. End of story.

Adams described his choice as 'a completely ordinary number, a number not just divisible by two but also six and seven. In fact it's the sort of number that you could without any fear introduce to your parents'.[3]

While 42 was a number with no hidden meaning, Adams explained in more detail in an interview with Iain Johnstone of BBC Radio 4 (recorded in 1998 though never broadcast)[8] to celebrate the first radio broadcast's 20th anniversary. Having decided it should be a number, he tried to think what an "ordinary number" should be. He ruled out non-integers, then he remembered having worked as a "prop-borrower" for John Cleese on his Video Arts training videos. Cleese needed a funny number for the punchline to a sketch involving a bank teller (himself) and a customer (Tim Brooke-Taylor). Adams believed that the number that Cleese came up with was 42 and he decided to use it.[9]

Adams also had written a sketch for The Burkiss Way called "42 Logical Positivism Avenue", broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 12 January 1977[10] – 14 months before the Hitchhiker's Guide first broadcast "42" in fit the fourth, 29 March 1978.[3]

In January 2000, in response to a panelist's "Where does the number 42 come from?" on the radio show "Book Club" Adams explained that he was "on his way to work one morning, whilst still writing the scene, and was thinking about what the actual answer should be. He eventually decided that it should be something that made no sense whatsoever- a number, and a mundane one at that. And that is how he arrived at the number 42, completely at random."

Stephen Fry, a friend of Adams, claims that Adams told him "exactly why 42", and that the reason is "fascinating, extraordinary and, when you think hard about it, completely obvious."[11] However, Fry says that he has vowed not to tell anyone the secret, and that it must go with him to the grave. John Lloyd, Adams' collaborator on The Meaning of Liff and two Hitchhiker's fits, said that Douglas has called 42 "the funniest of the two-digit numbers."[12]

The number 42 also appears frequently in the work of Lewis Carroll, and some critics have suggested that this was an influence.[13][14] Other purported Carroll influences include that Adams named the episodes of the original radio series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy "fits", the word Carroll used to name the chapters of The Hunting of the Snark. Any influence may have been unconscious, see cryptomnesia.

There is the persistent tale that forty-two is actually Adams' tribute to the indefatigable paperback book, and is really the average number of lines on an average page of an average paperback book.[15]

Songwriter John Galla proposes on his debut album, "Sketch," that "42" is a play on the words: "For tea...two". The significance of the number represents "true connection with another living being...however fleeting." [16][17]

42 Puzzle

The 42 puzzle. Note that the land in the background spells out 42, and that there are 42 colored balls

The 42 Puzzle is a game devised by Douglas Adams in 1994 for the United States series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books. The puzzle is an illustration consisting of 42 multi-coloured balls, in 7 columns and 6 rows. Douglas Adams has said,

Everybody was looking for hidden meanings and puzzles and significances in what I had written (like 'is it significant that 6×9 = 42 in base 13?'. As if.) So I thought that just for a change I would actually construct a puzzle and see how many people solved it. Of course, nobody paid it any attention. I think that's terribly significant.[18]

In the puzzle the question is unknown, but the answer is already known to be 42.

The puzzle first appeared in The Illustrated Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It was later incorporated into the covers of all five reprinted "Hitchhiker's" novels in the United States.

Six of the solutions are:[19]

How many spheres are in the diagram? (six rows of seven is 42) What position in the grid does the computer that calculates the Question to the Ultimate Answer (the Earth) occupy? (42) 42 as Interleaved 2 of 5 barcode.jpg
The barcode is the number 42 as an Interleaved 2 of 5 barcode
Considering red-hued spheres (red, purple, orange, black) as a '1' and those without as a '0', what number does each line represent in decimal form? (In binary, each line reads '0101010', or '42' in decimal form.) What number do the blue-tinted spheres (blue, green, purple, black) spell out? (Similar to a color blindness test.) (42) What number is represented by Roman numerals spelled out by the yellow-tinted spheres (yellow, orange, green, black) in the first three rows? (XLII = 42)

On the Internet

The number 42 and the phrase, "Life, the universe, and everything" have attained cult status on the Internet. "Life, the Universe, and Everything" is a common name for the off-topic section of an Internet forum and the phrase is invoked in similar ways to mean "anything at all". Many chatbots, when asked about the meaning of life, will answer "42". Several online calculators are also programmed with the Question. If you type the answer to life the universe and everything into Google (without quotes or capitalising the small words), the Google Calculator will give you 42, as will Wolfram's Computational Knowledge Engine.[20] Similarly, if you type the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything into DuckDuckGo, the 0-click box will read "42".[21] In the online community Second Life, there is a section on a sim called "42nd Life." It is devoted to this concept in the book series, and several attempts at recreating Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, were made. In Facebook Chat there is an emoticon for 42 created by typing :42: .

Shortly after Adams died in 2001, the Darwin Awards Forums announced that, in his honour, the number of posts required for a member to get out of "newbie" status would henceforth be decreased from 50 to 42.

In the software, if you type into any cell of a spreadsheet =ANTWORT("Das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest"), which means the answer to life, the universe and everything, the result is 42.[22]

ISO/IEC 14519-2001/ IEEE Std 1003.5-1999, IEEE Standard for Information Technology - POSIX(R) Ada Language Interfaces - Part 1: Binding for System Application Program Interface (API) , uses the number '42' as the required return value from a process that terminates due to an unhandled exception. The Rationale says "the choice of the value 42 is arbitrary" and cites the Adams book as the source of the value.

Cultural references

The Allen Telescope Array, a radio telescope used by SETI, has 42 dishes in homage to the number.[23]

In the Stargate Atlantis Season 4 episode "Quarantine", 42 are the last two digits in Rodney McKay's password, 16431879196842 (the first being the years Newton, Einstein and Rodney were born). After John Sheppard explains to Teyla the meaning of the previous twelve digits, she asks him what 42 is. Then, John says, "It's the ultimate answer to the great question of life, the universe, and everything," at which point Teyla looks confused. In the Stargate Universe episode "Human", Dr. Nicholas Rush is having a lucid dream in which he writes the number 46 on a whiteboard. In the dream, Dr. Daniel Jackson tells him, "Well, it's not the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything. That's 42. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

In the TV show Lost, 42 is the last of the mysterious numbers, 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42. In an interview with Lostpedia, producer David Fury confirmed this was a reference to Hitchhiker's.[24]

The TV show The Kumars at No. 42 is so named because show creator Sanjeev Bhaskar is a Hitchhiker's fan.[25]

The band Coldplay's album Viva la Vida includes a song called "42". When asked by Q magazine if the song's title was Hitchhiker's-related, Chris Martin said, "It is and it isn't."[26]

The band Level 42 chose its name in reference to the book.[27]

The episode "42" of the British science fiction television series Doctor Who was named in reference to the Ultimate Answer. Writer Chris Chibnall acknowledged that "it's a playful title".[28]

In the NCIS episode "Escaped", an address used is '4242 Adams Blvd'.

During an interview, Star Trek producer Rick Berman, when asked about the recurrence of the number 47 in multiple Star Trek episodes, stated that "47 is 42, corrected for inflation" in reference to Hitchiker's.[citation needed]

Ken Jennings, defeated along with Brad Rutter in a Jeopardy match against IBM's Watson, writes that Watson's avatar which appeared on-screen for those games showed 42 "threads of thought," and that the number was chosen in reference to this meme.[29]

In the Bollywood movie 3 Idiots, in the song 'Aal izz well', part of the lyrics, "Confusion hi confusion hai. Solution kuchh pata nahin. Solution jo mila to saala. Question kya tha pata nahin" (literally translated to: There is only confusion. We do not know the solution. When the solution was found, we did not know what the question was), was intended by lyricist as a reference to the Ultimate Question.[30]

Don't Panic

Towel with the words "Don't Panic" on Towel day

In the series, DON'T PANIC (always uppercase) is a phrase written on the cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.[31] The novel explains that this was partly because the device "looked insanely complicated" to operate, and partly to keep intergalactic travelers from panicking.[32] It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally fatal) inaccuracies, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy itself has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica because it is slightly cheaper, and because it has the words "DON'T PANIC" in large, friendly letters on the cover.[31]

Arthur C. Clarke said Douglas Adams' use of "Don't panic" was perhaps the best advice that could be given to humanity.[33]

Knowing where one's towel is

Somebody who can stay in control of virtually any situation is somebody who is said to know where his or her towel is. The logic behind this statement is presented in chapter 3 of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy thus:

... a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have "lost". What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Douglas Adams got the idea for this phrase when he went on holiday and found that his beach towel kept disappearing. On Towel Day, fans commemorate Douglas Adams by carrying towels with them.

In 2001, after Adams' death, a towel was introduced, in memory of Douglas Adams, into the MMORPG Asheron's Call as a unique item players could obtain.

Mostly Harmless

The only entry about Earth in the Guide used to be "Harmless", but Ford Prefect managed to change it a little before getting stuck on Earth. "Mostly Harmless" provoked a very upset reaction from Arthur when heard. (Those two words are not what Ford submitted as a result of his research — merely all that was left after his editors were done with it.) It is the title of the fifth book in the Hitchhiker series. Its popularity is such that it has become the definition of Earth in many standard works of sci-fi reference, like The Star Trek Encyclopedia. Additionally, "Harmless" and "Mostly Harmless" both feature as ranks in the computer game Elite. Also, in World of Warcraft, there is a rifle that fires (mostly) harmless pellets. In the MMORPG RuneScape, there is an island called Mos Le Harmless (Mostly Harmless). Low-scoring players in the multiplayer version of the game Perfect Dark and GoldenEye 007 are awarded with the designation "mostly harmless". In the 2008 edition of the board game Cosmic Encounter, the Human race is given the attribute "Mostly Harmless."

Not entirely unlike

In the novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Arthur Dent tries to get a Nutrimatic drinks dispenser to produce a cup of tea. Instead, it invariably produces a concoction (which most people found unpleasant) that is "almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea". One of the primary goals of the player, as Arthur Dent, in the computer game The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is to thwart the machine and find some decent tea, a mission that the player is constantly reminded of by the inventory item "no tea". According to the Jargon File, the briefer "not entirely unlike" has entered hacker jargon.[34]

Share and Enjoy

"Share and Enjoy" is the slogan of the complaints division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation. In the radio version, this phrase had its own song (sung in fit the ninth of the radio series), which was sung by a choir of robots during "special occasions". However, the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation tends to produce inherently faulty goods, which makes the slogan ironic since few people would "Share and Enjoy" a product that does not function properly. Among the design flaws is the choir of robots that sings the song: they sing a tritone out of tune with the accompaniment. The Guide relates that the words "Share and Enjoy" were displayed in illuminated letters three miles high near the Sirius Cybernetics Complaints Department, until their weight caused them to collapse through the underground offices of many young executives. The upper half of the sign that now protrudes translates in the local tongue as "Go stick your head in a pig", and is lit up only for special celebrations.

The fit the twentieth of the radio series features a personal computer OS booting sound (à la The Microsoft Sound) set to the tune of "Share and Enjoy". Furthermore, fit the twenty-first of the radio series, the last episode in the adaption of the novel So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, features a polyphonic ringtone version of the tune. The "Share and Enjoy" tune also is used in the TV series as the backing for a Sirius Cybernetics Corporation robot commercial (slogan: "Your plastic pal who's fun to be with!").

This phrase is often invoked in releasing freeware, shareware, or open source software, though without its ironic connotations.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

After mice, the second most intelligent species on Earth were the dolphins.

Although they had long known that Earth was about to be destroyed, their attempts to communicate this knowledge to humanity were misinterpreted as attempts to jump through hoops for bits of fish. They left the Earth just prior to its destruction, but left humanity one last message, a triple backwards somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the Star Spangled Banner, when, in fact, the message was this: "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish."
—Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The line was also the title of the fourth book in the series, and appears in that book as a message inscribed on crystal bowls left as parting gifts from the dolphins to the human race. Its popularity was such that it was the title of the opening song for the 2005 movie The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Also the phrase was spoofed for the NOFX album So Long and Thanks for All the Shoes.

When MyRealBox shut down on 2011-06-01, the final phrase of their announcement was "So long, and thanks for all the fish".

See also


  1. ^ a b c Douglas Adams (1 January 1980). The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. ISBN 0-345-39181-0. 
  2. ^ episode 6 of the TV series
  3. ^ a b c The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts. Douglas Adams, edited by Geoffrey Perkins. Pan Books, London. 1985. ISBN 0-330-29288-9
  4. ^ "BBC - h2g2 - A Conversation Forum". Retrieved 2007-09-04. 
  5. ^ Douglas Adams (1982). Life, the Universe and Everything. ISBN 0-330-26738-8. 
  6. ^ "In Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is the number from which all meaning could be derived.". CIO (Chief Information Officer) Magazine. 2007-04-03.,,sid183_gci211501,00.html. Retrieved 2008-03-03. 
  7. ^ "Why 42 ? - - Google Groups". Retrieved 2007-09-01. 
  8. ^ This interview is contained on Douglas Adams's Guide to The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (BBC Cassette ISBN 0-563-55236-0) and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - The Collectors Edition (BBC CD ISBN 0-563-47702-4)
  9. ^ Several attempts by fans to find this particular video have been unsuccessful and it is possible it may never have been published or has since been deleted from use.
  10. ^ This is found on the Douglas Adams at the BBC CD set (ISBN 0-563-49404-2)
  11. ^ "BBC News - Magazine - What on earth is 42?". 2008-03-07. Retrieved 2008-03-22. 
  12. ^ John Lloyd speaking at the 30th Anniversary Hitchhiker's recording at Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture on Wednesday 12th March 2008 at The Royal Geographical Society
  13. ^ Lewis Carroll and Douglas Adams.
  14. ^ The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, Jenny Woolf.
  15. ^ Vernon, Mark (7 March 2008). "What on earth is 42?". BBC News. Retrieved June 9, 2008. 
  16. ^ Galla, J. - "42.For Tea...Two"; "Sketch" (UPC 884501485371), ©Aural Mosaic Records;2011
  17. ^ "John Galla :: Photos". ReverbNation. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  18. ^ "Cool questions and answers with Douglas Adams". Retrieved 2007-08-19. 
  19. ^ "4.8 Probable Solution to the Ill Guide Puzzle (Douglas Adams)". Retrieved 2007-08-19. 
  20. ^ "answer to life, the universe, and everything - Wolfram|Alpha". Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  21. ^ "the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything at Duck Duck Go". 2010-10-10. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  22. ^ "Easter Eggs - Wiki". 2010-04-21. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  23. ^ Jacqui Hayes (2010). "Silent witness". Cosmos.,0. Retrieved 2010-08-20. 
  24. ^ "Lostpedia interview with David Fury". 2008-05-20. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  25. ^ "10 things we didn't know this time last week". BBC News. 2003-11-14. Retrieved 2009-02-17. 
  26. ^ "Coldplay: Viva La Vida". Q magazine. Retrieved 2009-03-09. 
  27. ^ Mandy Carter (2006). "Interview: Mark King - Level 42". Official site: Level 42. Retrieved 2009-04-04. 
  28. ^ Darlington, David (#381, April 2007), "Script Doctors: Chris Chibnall", Doctor Who Magazine: 24–30 
  29. ^ Ken Jennings (2011-02-16). "My Puny Human Brain". Slate magazine. Retrieved 2011-02-21. 
  30. ^ Hirani, Rajkumar, 3 Idiots: The Original Screenplay, Om Books International, p. 142, 
  31. ^ a b Adams, Douglas (1979). The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Pocket Books. p. 3. ISBN 0-671-46149-4. 
  32. ^ Adams, Douglas (1979). The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Pocket Books. p. 27. ISBN 0-671-46149-4. 
  33. ^ Zebrowski, George (2008-06-30). "Arthur C. Clarke looks back on the lifetime of influences that led him to become a science-fiction Grand Master". Sci Fi Weekly. SCI FI. Archived from the original on 2008-07-23. Retrieved 2008-07-24. "The best advice I think was given by Douglas Adams: "Don't panic."" 
  34. ^ "not entirely unlike X" - The Jargon File (version 4.4.7)

Further reading

Smith, Mol (2007). 42 - The Answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything. Maurice Smith. pp. 178 pages. ISBN 978-0-9557137-0-5. 

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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