42 demystified

There is an almost foolproof geek test. Stand in front of a person and just say “42“. If the subject of your inquisitiveness smiles knowingly, he or she is a geek.

There are many theories why Douglas Adams chose this number as “The answer to Life, Universe, and Everything“. According to Wikipedia Douglas gave this explanation: ” 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.”

Today I made an original discovery. Now this often means one just has not heard yet how others made it earlier, and in fact I found a tweet from six hours earlier and a blog post, also from today, where the same idea was advocated: Douglas must have seen the Feynman Lectures which were videotaped by the BBC in 1964 at Cornell University. These lectures rank very high among the most legendary lectures ever filmed, certainly on physics. Feynman is generally seen as one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. His vision (spiritual father of nanotechnology ) and humor are legendary (read ‘Surely you’re joking mr Feynman’). His main work is on fundamental physics. Feynman diagrams can be used to demonstrate elementary particle interactions very elegantly. He is famous for demonstrating that on the smallest level some problems can be easier solved when one assumes time flows backwards. I am not pretending that most of his ideas are within my grasp, although Feynman is legendary for his ability to explain complicated stuff in simple words, and the above lectures are the shining example.

Bill Gates had acquired the rights to these lecture tapes and now they are freely available on the web (you need to install Silverlight). Modesty has never been Bill’s greatest asset, so his face features prominently on the front page, next to Feynman’s. Who can blame him: after all he has spent some of his hard earned money to ‘liberate’ 1 these files, from whomever had managed to convert a brilliant scientist’s gift to the public into a financial asset. The New York Times tells us that “Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates believes that if he had been able to watch physicist Richard Feynman lecture on physics in 1964 his life might have played out differently”. Anyway I’m thrilled to watch these recordings.

Back to the topic:  in the first lecture (section 13) the following happens: Feynman says: “The ratio of the gravitational attraction to the electrical repulsion is written with 42 digits, all this is written carefully out [picture of chalk board] so that’s 42 digits. Now therein lies a very deep mystery: where could such a tremendous number come from? […] People have looked for such a large ratio in other places. They’re looking for a large number. They hope for example that there’s another large number. And if you want another large number why not take the diameter of the universe to the diameter of a proton. Amazingly enough it also is a number with 42 digits. And so an interesting proposal is made that this ratio — is the same as– the size of the universe to the diameter of the proton.” Feynman continues by rejecting this hypothesis: the universe is expanding, would that then somehow be linked to a changing cosmic constant?

My strong impression is that Douglas (clearly a science buff) watched this scene or read the transcript and caught the irony in Feynmans example. After all Feynman picked arbitrary ratios. He might have chosen another pair from the elementary forces that physics now acknowledges and another ratio would have followed. He might have swapped the diameter of a proton for that of an electron and again another ratio would have followed. Some other explanations (see above) are actually more fascinating, but most physicists would agree on this: in simplicity lays beauty and truth.

1: ‘Copy’ and ‘Save as’ are disabled on the site.

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2 Responses to 42 demystified

  1. AFriend says:

    The “Copy” and “Save as” are NOT disabled on this site. Nice try:

    ” irony in Feynmans example. After all Feynman picked arbitrary ratios. He might have chosen another pair from the elementary forces that physics now acknowledges and another ratio would have followed. He might have swapped the diameter of a proton for that of an electron and again another ratio would have followed. Some other explanations (see above) are actually more fascinating, but most physicists would agree on this: in simplicity lays beauty and truth”

  2. Erik says:

    The point is not whether 42 is or isn’t the ultimate ratio. The point is Feynman says so and builds a story around it. Perhaps Douglas Adams took notice, maybe he watched the BBC broadcast or maybe he read about, the lectures appeared in print. Now if Adams also thought this mystification of 42 was over the top, this makes it even more plausible he thought to mock it.

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