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The Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is a memorable phrase found in Douglas Adams’ comic science fiction novel series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the number 42 is revealed as the metanarrative that holds the key to the meaning of life. Due to its strong affiliation with online science fiction fan communities, the concept has been parodied and referenced online since the days of Usenet.
In the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which aired on BBC Radio 4 in 1978, the supercomputer Deep Thought is tasked with coming up with the the “answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.” After 7.5 million years of painstaking calculations, the computer reveals that answer to be the number 42, however, it fails to explain the meaning because it does not know “the ultimate question.” As a result, the Earth is built as a second supercomputer to provide the ultimate question.
On November 3rd, 1993, the author of the book Douglas Adams explained the reasoning behind choosing the number 42 as the answer to the ultimate questions in a Usenet discussion thread in alt.fan.douglas-adams:
“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.”
On August 23rd, 2003, the Google News blog Blogoscoped published a post titled “Google Calculator Knows Answer to Life, the Universer, and Everything”, revealing an easter egg implemented in Google search that returns “42” after searching “answer to life, the universe, and everything.”
Other search or knowledge engines such as IntelliBuddy, Cleverbot and Wolfram Alpha provides the same result for similar queries. On February 14th, 2004, the first Urban Dictionary definition for “The Life, The Universe, and Everything” was submitted by user Foobear, which cited The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as the origin.
On August 11th, 2008, a comic was uploaded to the web comic blog Short Minds in a post titled “Explaining Greatness” (shown below), featuring a man adding the numerical equivalents of the characters “XKCD” on a white board to equal “42.” The following day, xkcd forums user Battery137 posted a thread titled “xkcd=42?”, which linked to the Short Minds comic.
On January 2nd, 2009, a Yahoo Answers question “Why is the answer to everything 42?” was posted by user blue storm, which received an answer by user mmmcounts explaining its origin in the popular science fiction novel. In the virtual world Second Life, a section of the world dedicated to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe is called “42nd Life.” As of May 25th, 2012, a Facebook page for “42 The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything” has accumulated over 1,300 likes.
References in Pop Culture
- In the life simulation game Spore, reaching the center of the galaxy yields a powerful item known as the “Staff of Life” which has a limited 42 uses. It also grants the player an achievement titled “42.”
- In the fantasy game Fable II, the last in a series of ancient artifacts the player can find reads “Now just think of the number 42.”
- In Left 4 Dead 2, there is a minigame in which you must whack 42 “Moustachios” in order to get the “Stach Wacker” achievement.
- On the TV game show “Jeopardy!”, the IBM supercomputer Watson has 42 “threads” in its avatar.