Towel Day is just over a week away!
Gery Deer, Towel Day Ambassador for 2022, has launched a literacy initiative to raise funds to help improve reading skills.
If you live in the USA, you could chuck some bucks to Reading Is Fundamental. If you’re a Brit like me, I’m sure that BookTrust would appreciate it if you slid them a few quid. (And if you live somewhere else, you might want to search for an organisation that promotes literacy in your neck of the woods.)
The value of my own donation was predetermined by a highly esteemed wordsmith (no prizes for guessing who, or what the number was!)
Michio Kaku: The thing that I’ve never seen in a science fiction novel is the quest for the meaning of the universe. Here we have Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect being thrust into outer space, hitchhiking their way across the galaxy, encountering a civilization that has tried to grapple with a computer that can find the meaning of existence. Could you explain how you came to that? And then what was the final answer that the computer found?
Douglas Adams: I mean, very often, unless you understand everything that surrounds an answer, you’re not going to understand the answer itself. And in this case, nobody actually even knew what the question was supposed to be. So what happens, just to recap the story briefly, is that they build this gigantic supercomputer.
Of course, I didn’t know in those days that a supercomputer would have to be very small. I visited, a few years ago, a friend who was working at Digital Productions in Los Angeles, where they were working on a Cray supercomputer, which was really quite a small thing; I mean, it would sort of fit in this sort of space, though the cooling plant for it would fill a whole building. And the point is, the speed with which it has to operate, the length of each wire becomes significant. Light may be travelling, electrons may be travelling along it at 186,000 miles per second, but that is actually a little too slow for the computer. So, we now know as computers get more and more powerful, they’re going to have to get smaller and smaller and smaller. But anyway, so I made that mistake.
So, they ask it to calculate The Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything. And it says, “Okay, it’ll take me seven and a half million years of computation.” And eventually they come back and it says, “Yes, there is an Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.” And they say, “Are you going to tell us?” and it says, “Yes, but you’re not going to like it.” And eventually it says, “Well, The Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything is 42.” And they suddenly realize they hadn’t actually worked out what The Question was. And without knowing that, the answer ’42’ actually isn’t going to help you very much.
But it seemed to me, as much as anything else, I just liked the joke that it was going to be a number and nobody would know what that was. Trying to find what the number was was interesting, because I decided if you’re doing a joke that involves a number, then the sort of knee jerk reaction of comedy writers is to put in a sort of slightly peculiar number, like it’ll be sort of ‘seventeen and three-eighths’ or something, and I thought, no, that’s silly, because here the whole joke is that it is a number, and if you put a silly number in there, it’s going to defuse the joke. So it’s got to be a very, very ordinary number. So I thought, how do you find out what an ‘ordinary’ number is? So I thought, well, the first thing is it can’t be an odd number. Now there is exactly the same number of odd numbers as there are even numbers, but there’s something odd about them. And so I thought, well, it can’t be an odd number, it can’t be a prime number; it’s got to be an everyday sort of number: You know, you can divide six into it, you can divide seven into it; it’s just a sort of ordinary everyday number. And that was, you know, people have speculated, why did I choose that number? It was just the most ordinary one I could come up with.
Michio Kaku: So the meaning of the universe is 42. But, you know, from a physicist’s point of view, this is kind of interesting because in superstring theory, which is supposedly the theory of the entire universe, the magic number is 26; the theory predicts that our universe is in 26 dimensions. However, no one knows why; it just pops out of the equations. Here we have this number, 26, staring at us in the face. And many physicists have commented that in your series the number 42 jumps out, and yet it seems that the meaning of existence does seem to be bound by strange numbers that are actually even, and strange numbers that come at you for which there’s no explanation.
Douglas Adams: Right.
Michio Kaku: Let me ask you a personal question: how is it that somebody who is into comedy writing, somebody who’s into advanced physics, somebody who’s into science fiction came out with that strange combination? It had probably something to do with what happened when you were 15 years of age. How did it all come together?
Douglas Adams: Well, I remember, ages ago, having a talk to somebody who was a researcher in an arcane field in physics, and we discovered that I, as a comedy writer, and he, as a research physicist, did a very similar job. Because there’s something that we both do, which is sifting through all the sort of data, all the information, all the ideas, trying to find things that unexpectedly correlate from here to here, correspondences that are completely unexpected. And this is certainly what you do in comedy writing. You’re trying to see things by shifting some perspective, shifting some variables somewhere that suddenly makes two things that were apparently completely unalike, suddenly appear to be alike and appear to be alike because, in some fundamental way, they are. And it’s always those moments of sudden, rather startled recognition that give you particularly good moments in comedy. And you will see instantly how that obviously applies to scientific research. You’re actually trying to find patterns, you’re trying to find correspondences, things that connect with each other that you didn’t expect to. So I think it’s not unnatural that a mind which has a bent to do one, will also be fascinated by the other.
Michio Kaku: So the serendipity of the scientists, right? The leaps of logic, the fantastic leaps of logic that an Einstein or a Newton would have are also the basic science that comedy writers approach, and crack.
Douglas Adams: Yes. Certainly the way I approach comedy, that’s true; I mean, obviously, it’s different for different people. But, I suppose writing that kind of comedy has also allowed me to just invent, and speculate, with an immense amount of freedom. And it’s something that I’ve always loved doing. And it’s also the thing which is the natural resource of somebody who’s a scientist, the need to invent and speculate about ideas and writing science fiction comedy is the ideal way of putting the two together. And I have to say, though I had to abandon serious scientific training, you know, when I was 15 or whatever it was, and felt very frustrated by that for a long time, something that’s come sort of galloping to my rescue in one way has been personal computers, because I have a house full of Macintoshes and I spend an awful lot of time, apart from writing, doing bits of programming, following ideas and seeing how things work. And I’ve learnt an awful lot from it. My publishers always say that they think it’s a rather alarming displacement activity; it’s a modern writer’s equivalent of sharpening your pencils every morning before you get down to work, and then cleaning the fridge, and then having a bath; instead, I just do it all on the computer.
But I found that one of the things that held me back slightly, when I used to do maths and physics at a junior level, was I was very good at the concepts, but I had sort of number blindness at one level, in that, give me a column of figures to add up and I would never get them to come to the same number each time. And this used to drive me crazy because it was a terrible frustration that I would know, I would have grasped the concept, and not be able to make the numbers work on paper. And of course, if you’re using a computer, you can explore the concepts to your heart’s content because it will take care of the numbers. Now, any mathematician will say to me in response to that, “Ah, but if you if you don’t have an instinctive feel for basic arithmetic, then you’re always going to be somewhat of a limited mathematician”; because all the really great mathematicians have an absolute instinctive grasp of basic arithmetic, and you can’t really do one properly without the other. But there’s a grey area, in which I certainly fall, that is fascinated by concepts and can play with concepts, but kind of needs the machine to add up four and seven and get eleven every time.(Lightly edited for clarity.)
The transcript above was made with the help of Sonix, which did most of the donkey work for a tiny fee (I did have to spend some time tidying it up). Note that I do not have the copyright owner’s permission to publish this transcript here. I’ve investigated the copyright rules regarding transcriptions (more about that here), and one thing I’ve learned is that it’s no defence to make a disclaimer like “these aren’t my words, no copyright infringement intended.” However, I offer the transcription here as a service to society (especially the deaf community). I do hope the copyright owner won’t object. And I hope that you find this video as interesting as I did.