I'm reading the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in English for the first time, and came across the passage when Zaphod Beeblebrox is going to steal the Heart of Gold.

It strikes me that it says things like:

Within seconds he ran out onto the deck and waved and grinned at over three billion people.

It is implied that this is a huge event, and he is the President of the Galaxy, so many, many people should be watching.

Wikipedia says English billions used to be a million millions, but it became more popular to mean a thousand millions around 1950. Given the Earth currently hosts around seven new-billion people, 3 new-billion people doesn't seem to be that many people for the whole Galaxy. The Earth didn't count in that moment - it was being destroyed, and we didn't have intergalactical tri-D TV at the time, anyways - but it still sounds like too few.

On the other hand, at the time of writing, TVs weren't so common, so great events like the Apollo mission weren't seen by that many people live. But, once again, the story is about more technologically advanced civilizations, so it won't be that rare to think of better TV penetration.

So... Is there any canon reference about this, either on the radio shows, books, TV series, movie...? Any interview with Douglas Adams stating this itself?

Were there a thousand million watchers in the Galaxy, or a million millions?

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    I read that to mean that he waved directly at 3 billion people, i.e., there were 3 billion people attending the event in person, and the figure did not include television audiences. Commented Feb 11, 2017 at 23:48
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    Even in the '90s, it was still common in England for billion to mean million million rather than thousand million. I don't know what usage is like today, though.
    – Dranon
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 0:34
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    @Dranon - I've never met anyone British who's ever meant "billion" in any other sense than the US version. I would be startled to come across a reference from anything after the 1960s
    – Valorum
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 0:39
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    I used to think of a billion as a million million maybe 10-15 years ago (though I was aware of the "American billion"). Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 5:29
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    In 1974 I had a letter read out of R4's PM which expressed dismay that HM, the Queen, had used the US meaning of billion when opening the Sullum Voe oil terminal. Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 9:20

1 Answer 1


He uses it inconsistently, so possibly he could mean either. In Life, the Universe and Everything he seems to think that it's a thousand thousand million.

The technology involved in making anything invisible is so infinitely complex that nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand million, nine hundred and ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a billion it is much simpler and more effective just to take the thing away and do without it.

Life, the Universe and Everything - Chapter 3

Whereas in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and elsewhere) he largely uses it to mean a thousand million.

"Well, there are a hundred billion stars in the Galaxy, and only a limited amount of space in the book's microprocessors," he said, "and no one knew much about the Earth of course."

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Chapter 6

Adams, being a reasonably well read man would undoubtedly have been aware that there certainly aren't 1 trillion stars (a million million) in the Milky Way.

Not that he ever went swimming of course. His busy schedule would not allow it. He was the way he was because billions of years ago when the Vogons had first crawled out of the sluggish primeval seas of Vogsphere, and had lain panting and heaving on the planet's virgin shores…

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Chapter 6

Adams, being a reasonably well read man would undoubtedly have been aware that the universe wasn't hundreds of billions of years old, although he does make reference to events (such as the Krikkit Wars) having occurred twenty billion years ago.

and again in Mostly Harmless when referring to the population of the Earth in the early 1990s

"Oh don't get all maudlin on me," snapped Ford. "We have to find your daughter and we have to find that bird thing."
"How?" said Arthur. "This is a planet of five and a half billion people, and…"

Mostly Harmless – Chapter 23

Interestingly, there's another science goof later in Mostly Harmless when he describes Rupert as having been found beyond Pluto, but only a third of a billion miles from The Sun. Assuming he means the British billion, that would place it well outside the solar system (almost a quarter of a light year outside) whereas if he means the US billion, that would place its orbit inside Jupiter's

This is normally very bad for a video camera. But when the sun is roughly a third of a billion miles away it doesn't do any harm. In fact it hardly makes any impression at all. You just get a small point of light right in the middle of the frame, which could be just about anything. It was just one star in a multitude.

Mostly Harmless – Chapter 21

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    A lot of well read people are not very good with numbers. I bet Adams didn't have a clue how many stars in the Milky Way, found the "hundred billion" in a reference source, and copied it without worrying about how many that was, and the same for the population of the Earth, etc.
    – user14111
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 1:07
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    I wonder if the inconsistencies are his, or his editor's
    – user31178
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 6:30
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    How do we know that when Adams heard "a billion" he understood it to mean a thousand million? If someone told him "there are a hundred billion stars in the galaxy" how do we know he interpreted that as a hundred thousand million and not a hundred million million? Both numbers mean "more than you can imagine" outside of mathematics.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 9:01
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    a thousand thousand million isn't that "a million million"?
    – Federico
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 14:53
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    well researched dude !!!
    – Fattie
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 16:30

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