Theories behind why the number 42 is ultimate answer, to the ultimate question

We all know it as the ultimate answer, to the ultimate question – but the number 42 has a lot more to say for itself than that.

Douglas Adams identified the number as "the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything" in his famous novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, with the fictional supercomputer Deep Thought coming to the unassailable conclusion after 7.5 million years of deliberation.

The following dissatisfaction with the answer – which Adams says in his own way was delivered "with infinite majesty and calm" – ultimately ends in Deep Thought saying the query was vaguely worded, and that for the answer to make sense a better statement of the question needed to be formulated.

As unintelligible as this answer was to many in the novel, it has since become a subject of much debate.

Anyone asking today for "the meaning of life" or anything similar will have a fair chance of receiving the number 42 in return – indeed, the top result on a quick Google search for the question 'What is the answer?' will be exactly that.

A number of theories have been thrown around in the years since the novel's publication in 1979 as to why that particular number became the basis for Adams' view of the universe.

What does the man himself say?

"The answer to this is very simple," he said in 1993.

"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."

So, after all that, we will never know if Adams had another reason for choosing 42 – but it is a number that appears throughout history in significant ways anyway.

Scientific and mathematical uses

The number appears in intriguing contexts in maths and science.

For example, 42 is the number of degrees (when rounded to the nearest whole) that make up the critical angle of a rainbow.

A 1966 theory from mathematician Paul Cooper also suggested that one could travel through the Earth by means of a straight, hollow tube that was devoid of air by which people would simply fall to the other side.

The time of such a journey was worked out at 42 minutes – even if the tube does not pass through the exact centre of the Earth.

It is also just the second sphenic number – meaning it is made up by multiplying three different prime numbers together (being two, three and seven). The first is 30 (two, three and five).

Religious uses

The number has many recurring uses in religion, with numerous faiths seeing the number crop up.

One of the most famous is that in the Kabbalistic tradition – a mystical arm of the Jewish faith – it is said that 42 is the number with which God creates the universe.

In similar Judaism traditions, the common standard is that the Torah scroll is written with 42 lines (although this is not universal). There are also teachings of a 'Forty-Two Lettered Name' that is ascribed to God.

There are also numerous 42s in Christianity, with the most prominent being the number of generations included in the Genealogy of Jesus as presented in the Gospel of Matthew.

Away from modern religion, the number 42 also occurs in ancient Egyptian traditions. It is thought that 42 questions were asked of persons making their journey through death and that for a person to be reincarnated, they needed to give an answer to all.

The Gutenberg Bible, among the earliest books ever printed using Johannes Gutenberg's printing press, was made up of 42 lines and is often referred to as the 42-Line Bible.

However, while interesting, these uses cannot present a clear case as to why the number 42 was deemed so important to Adams as to frame his universe around it.

If there was a greater reason, we will never know what prompted Adams to choose the number 42, but it is a significant number anyway.

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