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42 (h2g2, meaning of life, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)

What is 42 (h2g2, meaning of life, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)?

In Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is the number from which all meaning ("the meaning of life, the universe, and everything") can be derived. However, its actual significance is open to interpretation.

A BBC News radio script based on Adams' book introduces this concept with the following lines:

  • A caveman lays out the following sentence in Scrabble stones: "What do you get if you multiply six by nine?"
  • Arthur: "Six by nine? Forty-two? You know, I've always felt that there was something fundamentally wrong with the Universe."
  • A faint and distant voice then says: "Base thirteen!"

What is base 13 and how is it related to the number 42?

Base 13 (otherwise known as a tri-decimal or tre-decimal) is a positional number system that holds 13 as its base. It uses 13 digits to represent numbers.

Digits for base 13 include 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, X, E and T or 0-9, A, B and C. It should be known however that Base 13 is not used in any practical situation.

Graphic of the number 42
The number 42 from Douglas Adams' 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' represents all meaning ('the meaning of life, the universe, and everything') as determined by the fictional supercomputer Deep Thought.

The number 42 is not a particularly significant number in base 13. However, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is Deep Thought's answer to "the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything." Deep Thought is a fictional supercomputer built for that very purpose in the book.

In this case, instead of representing a physical object, the number 42 is the actual answer to the question, "What is the meaning of life?"

In some Spanish-speaking countries, there is a phrase that goes, "42 es la respuesta a la pregunta final" or "42 is the answer to the final question."

This has led many to search for representations of the number 42 in order to unearth any hidden meaning the number might possess. Others have dismissed it as making no sense whatsoever.

Where else does 42 appear?

While we can do little more than speculate, many have noted significant representations of the number 42 outside of the Guide to the Galaxy that may (or may not) shed further light on the meaning of life.

42 in binary code

While it may not be significant to base 13, the number 42 is a significant number in binary code, where it is represented as 101010. This particular pattern of zeros and ones appears often in mathematical and computer-related contexts.

42 in Buddhism and Hinduism

The number 42 is also significant in some Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism where many believe a person reaches Nirvana or Moksha, which is the final goal of life, around age 42. Of course, there is no actual set age for this experience.

42 in Christianity

There are also many mentions of the number 42 in the Bible. In the Book of Revelation, for example, the number 42 is associated with the 42 months that the Antichrist will rule over the world. In another instance, 42 is the number of generations from Abraham to Jesus Christ.

42 and the angle of a rainbow

The angle at which light reflects off water to create a rainbow is 42 degrees.

42 and the speed of light crossing a proton

Two physical constants in the universe are the speed of light and the diameter of a proton. It takes light 10 to the minus 42nd power seconds to cross the diameter of a proton.

42 and the asterisk symbol

Forty-two is the ASCII code for the symbol * also known as the asterisk. This symbol is often thought to translate to anything or everything. In this instance, 42 = everything, the meaning of life.

However, it should be noted that all these 42s are base 10, not base 13, so their relation to one another is still vague at best.

So, what is 42?

It's a number with a lot of different meanings, both literal and abstract. It's a number that can be found all over the place, both in the real world and in fiction. And it's a number that just might help answer the greatest question of all, "What is the meaning of life?"

See also: Infinite Monkey Theorem, Table of Physical Units and Constants

This was last updated in July 2022

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