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Star Trek often refers to 47 and Star Trek made a sport out of finding real or imagined references to 47. Why did Douglas Adams pick 42 as the ultimate answer in the Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy?

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  • 45
    What is the point of citing Star Trek when question don't refer to ?
    – Riduidel
    Jan 12 '11 at 14:04
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    @Riduidel, Adams makes a number of references to Star Track in the hitchhiker series (e. g. "to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before"). So picking another magic number is noteworthy. Mar 20 '11 at 0:00
  • 28
    The producers of the Star Trek series with 47 say it's a reference to 42, but it accounts for inflation.
    – dkuntz2
    May 18 '11 at 21:56
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    @ripper234 I think you meant 6 * 9. Feb 19 '12 at 21:11
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    @Jonathan. Because that's what the ultimate question is. Apr 6 '12 at 1:42
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According to Douglas Adams himself:

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.

Source: Wikipedia article

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  • 21
    I've also read interviews where Douglas said he had it down to one of several numbers, but that he found 42 the funniest.
    – Nellius
    Jan 12 '11 at 14:03
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    @Nellius - what were the runners up?! =P
    – JustJeff
    Jan 17 '11 at 1:02
  • I heard at one point that the answer was, "Count the dots on a pair of dice." Honestly, I find that rather believable.
    – Tango
    May 19 '11 at 4:04
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    120? And you wanted this to stay at 42? LOL - that is why humanity can't have nice things.
    – flq
    Mar 14 '13 at 19:16
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    Many artists prefer not to explain away the "hiddden meanings" within their work. Asking them about their reasons behind specific elements very often gets answers like that, especially if they don't think the subject deserves a lot of thought.
    – Misha R
    Aug 16 '14 at 14:51
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On a day when he was less tired of the question than when he gave the quote in @GoranJovic’s answer, Douglas Adams went into more detail about how he chose 42:

I wanted a nice, ordinary number, one that you wouldn’t mind taking home and introducing to your parents.

Yes, the answer to the universe really is 42, The Independent

The joke, like much of Adams’ humour, aims for bathos (“an abrupt, unintended transition in style from the exalted to the commonplace”), so the number has to feel utterly ordinary, to contrast with the grandiose idea of a meaning to existence.

Here’s an extract from M. J. Simpson’s Douglas Adams biography (on a Procul Harum fan site, of all places) that discusses his thought process in more detail:

What is the most ordinary, workaday number you can find? I don’t want fractions on the end of it. I don’t even want it to be a prime number. And I guess it mustn’t even be an odd number. There is something slightly more reassuring about even numbers. So I just wanted an ordinary, workaday number, and chose 42.

Procol-oriented extracts from MJ Simpson's authoritative book
Procol Harum - Beyond the Pale

Personally, I think the rhythm of the syllables, and the soporific “or” sound in ”forty”, help to create this “workaday” quality. Forty-two, dum-de-dum. It sounds frumpy.

Also, the second digit (2) is half of the first digit (4) and has half the syllables, which I think adds to the sense of quiet anticlimax.

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    +1 for bathos, which I've not heard before but must now use. One more vote to go until it's this answer’s turn to be in the Goldilocks position while it lasts. Aug 13 '15 at 22:14
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: it’s a bit like pathos, and if you add in Aramis you’ve got all three Muskateers. Ah, so close. (Plus I would also like to note that this is the right answer.) Aug 13 '15 at 22:18
  • @PaulD.Waite - Oops I didnt mean to communtiy wiki it, feel free to roll it back, maybe that will revert it? Aug 13 '15 at 23:12
  • @MarkRogers: oh no don’t worry about that, I accidentally made it community wiki years ago by repeatedly editing it in an attempt to grab attention. Your linking is definitely an improvement. Aug 14 '15 at 7:54
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    @RyanVeeder: well, I guess unintended by the characters delivering the lines, as opposed to unintended by the author. Aug 15 '15 at 11:22
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As some people remarked, it's possible that Adams had deeper reasons for choosing 42, but was disinclined to share them. Personally, I don't believe this is the case, and I believe Paul D. Waite's answer is the correct one. However, there is a quote by Stephen Fry that I think is worth mentioning in this thread:

"Of course, it would be unfair for me to comment," he confides. "Douglas told me in the strictest confidence exactly why 42. The answer is fascinating, extraordinary and, when you think hard about it, completely obvious. Nonetheless amazing for that.

"Remarkable really. But sadly I cannot share it with anyone and the secret must go with me to the grave. Pity, because it explains so much beyond the books. It really does explain the secret of life, the universe, and everything."

(From here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7283155.stm)

Personally, I'm certain that Fry was pulling our leg. But like I said, I still think it's worth mentioning here, and that it's a relevant answer to this question, so there you have it.

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  • It'd be nice if whoever downvoted me explained why...
    – Wade
    Jan 5 at 21:26
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    Doesn't deserve a downvote, but I think in that quote Stephen Fry is being as wryly British as Douglas Adams was when he chose the number. The last two sentences especially of Fry's quote make that clearer. Or in other words, both Adams and Fry were doing what we today would call trolling, in the typically subtle British style.
    – Prometheus
    Jun 19 at 0:43
  • @Prometheus 100% agree with you, I'm certain this is the case. I just felt it's important to mention this, somehow, in case anyone thinks differently, and just for "completeness".
    – Wade
    Jun 19 at 7:53
  • Then that's contrary to the first line of your answer and you should edit it - rather than very likely, it's actually very unlikely there were any deeper reasons. That was probably the reason for any downvote.
    – Prometheus
    Jun 19 at 16:46
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    @Prometheus That's weird, I don't remember writing this! I wonder if it's a typo. Since I've always been sure that Adams simply chose the "funniest" number he could think of, and that his real explanation was that he "just wanted an ordinary, workaday number, and chose 42". Thanks!
    – Wade
    Jun 20 at 11:25

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