The Number 42 in the Hitchhiker's Guide
A guide or an encyclopedia should have answers and prompt its readers to quest for information. Douglas Adams's "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" does this in an interesting, campy, and perhaps geeky way. In the series of novels, the number 42 takes on tremendous significance. It turns out that 42 was the answer to the ultimate question. The problem seemed to be that nobody knew what the ultimate question might be.
Although proposed questions ranged from the inordinate "six times nine" to the even less ordinate "How many roads must a man walk down?" the difinitive question seems to have been left wanting. This is partly because Douglas Adams meant it to be this way. Regarding how he chose forty-two to be the ultimate answer, he stated in 1993, "It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one...I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought '42 will do'. I typed it out. End of story."
Yet 42 has some peculiar qualities about it that make it interesting. First, it was also a number that fascinated Lewis Carroll, the author of "Alice in Wonderland". Second, it was the number of hours that Juliet slept when she took the potion in Shakespeare's great tragedy. It is also the atomic number of molybdenum, the number of teeth dogs possess, etc.
Perhaps if we searched hard enough we could find as many references to any other number, at least any other number under a hundred. After all, there are a near infinity of factoids that contain a number. Nevertheless, type "42" into Google and you will find more speculation about it than any other number except perhaps the mystical 666. The real question to ask might be why this particular number has gripped the imagination of so many authors (Adams, Carroll, and Shakespeare to name a few), and why so many people in Anglo-American culture conjecture about it.
Perhaps one author used it randomly, and it stuck in the head of others, and their influence spread it to the general population, a population that is continually searching for answers, or in the case of Adams, questions.
Looking for philosophic answers regarding 42 is actually a simple matter. For example, we might look at the common factors of 42 (2,3,6,7,14,21) and pick out the two most significant, six and seven. Seven is thought by many to be the perfect number. It is especially highly thought of in the Bible; the phrase "seven times seven" occurs over 30 times in the combined testaments, and the number seven is always connected with good. Meanwhile, six is seen as evil, as in the devil's number, mentioned above. We might see the multiplication of these two numbers as kind of a yin and yang, good and evil constantly at odds. Thus 42 could be the sum total of all good and evil.
Shakespeare had Hamlet say, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." But a quote from Shakespeare does not make it so. As of yet, modern psychology has not made a study of 42. Why it should take such prominence then is open for conjecture. Perhaps the government will grant a University a few million to investigate the phenomenon. Until that date we can only wonder.