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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 last July in the longest Wimbledon final ever, he became the first Spaniard to win the grass-court major in 42 years. This sent Spain into full celebration mode. It also caused great consternation among fans as Federer was about to witness a sixth straight Wimbledon victory. I suspect, however, that most people dropped by yawning in their kitchens for another cup of coffee. Not me. I ran to my computer and opened a folder titled “42’s”, where I’ve collected significant occurrences of the number for years. Before I sound like a total kook, remember that “42” was revealed by the late British science fiction satirist Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001), as the answer to the ultimate question of life, universe and everything.

Adams’ sci-fi “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. Appalled humans receive little sympathy – the notice, after all, had been posted for millennia in the basement of a public building. Where? Well, not Earth.

The search for the meaning of life, the universe and everything is undertaken by a long-suffering computer named Deep Thought, built by mice. In an unprecedented show of perseverance, he worked on the problem for 7.5 million years before concluding 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 the chunk of granite used in the ancient Scottish ice sport of curling, 42 comes up often in the sport, even without holding score account. The New England Patriots waited 42 years to win a national championship; – it was 20-17 against the St. Louis Rams in the first Super Bowl ever won by a field goal. In October 2002, their forty-second season, Gene Autry’s Anaheim Angels won their first World Series.

2009 started out as a year filled with 42 years. Three of the greatest stories – the Hero of the Hudson River, the Peanut Butter Recall and the California Octuplets – are inexorably tied to 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 Nadya Suleman gave birth to octuplets, bringing the number of her descendants to fourteen and sparking a fierce debate over the unfair burden on the taxpayer, California was thrown into a budget crisis. The deficit ? $42 billion.

Road deaths are down in 42 states. As I do my final edit of this article, I hear Charles Gibson say that 42% of prostate cancers are overdiagnosed. I wonder if the 2009 government list will contain 42 foreign terrorist groups as in April 2008?

This pop-culture, holy grail of numbers makes many appearances in history. Napoleon Bonaparte graduated from military school forty-second out of fifty-eight – proving once again that you don’t have to be top of your class to make history, although a ranking higher may have helped Waterloo somewhat.

Ben Franklin has completed 42 years of public service. Our youngest president, Teddy Roosevelt, was 42 when he was sworn in. Rosa Parks was 42 in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on the 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 the Shun Jo 5, made 14 orbits around the Earth. 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 ocean miles. $4200 was the average annual income in Hoover’s day, and there are 42 gallons in a barrel of crude oil. And who could forget 42nd and Broadway?

Not all meaningful examples of Adam’s favorite number are happy. In February 2003, NASA’s 42-year history of zero re-entry problems ended with the loss of space shuttle Columbia. Lenny Bruce, Gilda Radner and Elvis Presley are all dead at 42. By the way, Elvis earned $42 million in 2006.

It’s even in the Bible; Matthew lists 42 generations between Abraham and Jesus – separated into three groups of fourteen. Additionally, the fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea places the birth of Jesus in the forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus.

This 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 motte measured 42 feet in diameter. In October 1995, the 42-member Governor’s Commission for a Sustainable South Florida issued a unanimous statement denouncing the state of the Everglades.

Literature also has its 42. The wedding cake in “The Magic Fishbone” by Charles Dickens is 42 meters around. In “Tolkien’s The Two Towers”, Gimley the dwarf slew 42 orks in the Battle of Helm’s Deep. There are 42 chapters in “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller. This one makes me particularly happy. JK Rowling finished the Harry Potter series in its forty-second year.

My list contains many items that I suspect are no longer true. A 2001 study claimed that 42% of women thought their dogs were better listeners than their husbands. In 2004, we heard that 42% of NASCAR fans were women. In 2007, we learned that 42% of American blind adults are married. In fact, I grew so tired of recording survey data that I began to suspect their authors were hardcore Adams fans.

My research has 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 inch tall as PBS’ Nova told us in 2002? Are there still 42 political parties in Iraq as in 2004? Does the US government still own 42% of Wyoming and New Mexico? Does Hewlett Packard still derive 42% of its profits from the sale of ink, 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’s. That was the age my sister was when I finally got to email her on her birthday. 42 degrees is the magic temperature at which our cold weather dehumidifiers no longer work. Our piano tuner says the ideal humidity for a piano is 42% – he doesn’t know my obsession. The addition my dad built to 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 website in Everitt, Pennsylvania that wanted $50 for “Harvest” that they were selling as a rare Christian CD. I resisted the urge to write and tell them that I had a few left that I would be happy to leave with them for the low price of…oh, let’s 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.

I so wanted our closest star to be 4.2 light years away. At first I thought I was going to be disappointed. Alpha Centauri’s twin stars, after all, which are often referred to as the closest outside our own solar system, are 4.3 light years away. But wait! The famous twin star system contains a third smaller star, Proxima Centauri, which is 4.2 light years from Earth – well, 4.22, if you want to be technical.

Two of astronomy’s most intriguing examples of Adams’ favorite number emerged after his death. In 2007, scientists discovered the dwarf galaxy Canis Major named after the constellation in which it is located, it is 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, he began his search for extraterrestrial life in 2006. In a way, I think Adams would like that.

copyright 2009 by Donna W. Hill

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