With thanks to my friend Rusty, who clued me in on this wonderful observation, and gave me permission to steal his ideas from here. None of this is my own work: Rusty deserves all the credit.


There are numerous theories, cultural references and a great deal of debate surrounding the choice by the late, great, Douglas Adams of ’42’ as the Answer. Before going any further, let’s get one thing straight from the horse’s mouth:

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.
— Douglas Adams

That having been said, here’s a thing that suggests that the universe is a far, far stranger thing than anyone could possibly imagine….

A picture of William Shakespeare with the quote 'To be, or not to be'To be, or not to be: that is the question

Another English playwright has alluded to 42 in a pop culture literary work, albeit in an obscure fashion. Ask the average person to name the first English playwright that pops into their head. The answer is likely to be “William Shakespeare”. Next, ask that person to name a popular work by Shakespeare. When the question is, “Which do you think is the most well known Shakespearian play?”, the answer is almost always, “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”. Finally, ask for a (popular) quotation from Hamlet. Again, the most likely answer will be, “To be, or not to be”.

George Boole (and various numerical thingumijigs)

Before leaping ahead to consider the next statement in Hamlet’s soliloquy, a necessary digression into hexadecimal and boolean logic. (Recognising, of course, that Shakespeare probably didn’t know much about base 16 and had shuffled off his own mortal coil long before George Boole gave his insights to the world.)

The statement “To be, or not to be” is homophonic with the boolean statement “0x2B | !0x2B”. Converting 0x2B to base10 yields ’43’, which is close to ’42’, but, disappointingly, not the same. However, when one examines the entire boolean expression one finds a bit pattern (0x2B = 01000010) OR’d with its ones complement. Regardless of the width of the register (i.e. number of bits), Hamlet's contemplation: 42?OR’ing any bit pattern with its ones complement results in a register full of ‘set’ bits (0x…FF = …11111111). Interpreting this result as an unsigned integer would be vague (how wide is the register?), but as a signed integer value and regardless of the number of bits, it is a single increment away from ‘clocking over’ to a register of ‘unset’ bits plus an overflow. Thus, this register represents a value that could be interpreted as the integer that is one less than zero (‘-1’). “To be, or not to be” can be seen as a representation of the value 42 (i.e. 43 + -1).

Consider, now, the full couplet: Hamlet states, albeit in an obscure fashion:

Forty-two. That is the question.

Douglas AdamsThus, the observation that two English playwrights, living about 400 years apart, listening to their muses, have both expressed the value 42 in association with existential questions of “Why are we here and what is the relation of our life to the universe?”. Shakespeare connects this seemingly mystical number with the question of existence, while Adams associates it with the answer to metaphysical quandaries. When one considers the infinite possibilities that Shakespeare or Adams could have selected to express their plot/point, this is a striking coincidence. And, the public has resonated and ‘taken up’ these works as ‘popular’ or ‘cult’. Ask the average person about Twelfth Night or Dirk Gently and note the vacant look of non-recognition on their face.

It’s also curious that the original versions of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy also recognised another popular Shakespearian allusion wherein an infinite number of monkeys had worked out a script for Hamlet. How blatant can this obfuscation be?

The ‘duality’ of Hamlet’s reference to 42 as the question and Deep Thought’s revelation of 42 as the answer is appealing in a yin yang sort of way.

42 is the question AND the answer

About peNdantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
This entry was posted in ... wait, what?, Just for laughs, Phlyarology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to 42!

  1. MythRider says:

    So much thinking could strain the brain. ;0)

    Liked by 2 people

    • rusty says:

      Ah, MythRider… Take care!
      Skynet & Arnie are counting on us to have precisely that attitude!
      Recall Graham Chapman’s reference to ‘Harold,’ the sheep that attempted to fly. We consider ourselves superior to sheep, and regard any attempts at aviation by any of those wool-bearers who may be ‘clever’ to be ‘dangerous’…
      When your smartphone says, “No, I won’t”, it’ll be too late…

      Liked by 2 people

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  3. Steven McBrien says:

    I absolutely LOVE this post! Many thanks to Rusty and to you for sharing it! Just noticed this, too… T(20) 0(15) B(2) E(5) = 42! Hence, 42 or not 42, that is the question! :D

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think 42 came to be by multiplying the number 21 times two. Or, potentially by adding 21 to 21.

    Liked by 1 person

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