How Many Times Did Mexico Win The World Cup 42 – A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Sci-Fi’s Favorite Number – Homage to the Late Douglas Adams

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42 – A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Sci-Fi’s Favorite Number – Homage to the Late Douglas Adams

When Rafa Nadall beat Roger Federer last July in the longest final in Wimbledon history, he became the first Spaniard to win the main green court in 42 years. This sent Spain into full celebration mode. It also caused much disappointment among Federer fans who were about to see a sixth Wimbledon victory in a row. I suspect, however, that most people stumble yawning into their kitchens for another cup of coffee. Not me. I ran for my computer and opened a folder labeled “42’s,” where I have been collecting significant events of the number for years. Before you strike me as a complete quack, remember that “42” was revealed by the late science fiction satirist Douglas Adams (1952 – 2001), as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.

Adams’ science fiction “trilogy,” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which consists of five novels, began as a BBC radio series in 1978. The story begins with the destruction of planet Earth to make way for a road avoid new intergalactic. Disappointed humans get little sympathy – the warning, after all, had been displayed for thousands of years in the basement of a public building. Where? Well, not the Earth.

The search for the meaning of life, the universe and everything is done by a long-suffering computer called Deep Thought, built by mice. In an unparalleled display of perseverance, he worked on the problem for 7.5 million years before concluding that the answer was the number 42.

From the number of major league baseball’s first African-American, Jackie Robinson, to the weight in pounds of a piece of granite used in the ancient Scottish ice sport of curling, 42 comes up a lot in sports, even age regardless of scores. The New England Patriots waited 42 years to win a national championship; – it was 20-17 over the St Louis Rams in the first Super Bowl ever won by a field goal. In October 2002, their forty-second season, Gene Autry’s Anaheim Angels won their first world series.

2009 started as a year that was packed with 42s. Three of the biggest stories – the Hudson River Hero, the peanut butter recall and the California octuplets – are irrevocably linked to the number. Captain Sully Sullenberger had 42 years of flying experience before landing safely in the Hudson. As of January 10th when King Nut announced its total peanut butter recall, 399 people in 42 states had been infected with salmonella. When Nadya Suleman gave birth to octoplets increasing the number of her offspring to fourteen and sparking a fierce debate about the unfair burden on the taxpayer, California was facing a budget crisis. The lack? $42 billion.

Traffic deaths are down in 42 states. As I do my final edit of this article, I hear Charles Gibson say that 42% of prostate cancers are overdiagnosed. I wonder if the 2009 government list will include 42 foreign terrorist groups as in April, 2008?

This pop culture Holy Grail of numbers makes many appearances in history. Napoleon Bonaparte graduated from military school forty seconds out of fifty-eight – proving again that you don’t have to be top of your class to make history, although a higher position may have helped somewhat at Waterloo.

Ben Franklin completed 42 years of public service. Our youngest president, Teddy Roosevelt, was 42 years old when he took the oath of office. Rosa Parks was 42 in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on the bus. 42 years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, China became the third nation to send a man into space. Jung Lee Way, aboard the Shun Jo 5, circled the Earth 14 times. I feel obliged to point out that fourteen is a third of 42.

42,000 feet is the ceiling for commercial aircraft. Captain Cook’s journey covered 4200 miles of ocean. The average annual income in Hoover’s day was $4200, and there are 42 gallons in a barrel of crude oil. And, who could forget 42nd and Broadway?

Not all significant cases of Adam’s favorite number are happy ones. In February, 2003, NASA’s 42-year history of never having trouble re-entering ended with the loss of the shuttle Columbia. Lenny Bruce, Gilda Radner and Elvis Presley died aged 42. By the way, Elvis earned $42 million in 2006.

It’s even in the Bible; Matthew lists 42 generations between Abraham and Jesus – separated into three groups of fourteen. In addition, the Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea from the fourth century places the birth of Jesus in the forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus.

Here’s to the state of Florida! There are 42 bridges in the Florida Keys. National Geographic reported on the relocation of a 350 tonne Florida Oak. Its root ball was 42 feet in diameter. In October 1995, all 42 members of the Governor’s Commission for a Sustainable South Florida issued a unanimous statement denouncing the state of the Everglades.

Literature also has its 42s. The wedding cake in Charles Dickens’ “The Magic Fishbone” is 42 yards around. In Tolkien’s “The Two Towers”, Gimley killed 42 dwarves orcs in the battle of Helm’s Deep. There are 42 chapters in “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller. That makes me especially happy. JK Rowling finished the Harry Potter series in her forty-second year.

My list contains many items that I suspect are no longer true. A 2001 study claimed that 42 percent of women think their dogs are better listeners than their husbands. In 2004, we learned that 42 percent of NASCAR fans were women. In 2007 we learned that 42 percent of blind American adults are married. In fact, I was so tired of recording data from surveys that I began to suspect their authors of being die-hard Adams fans.

My research has left me with many questions. Do red blood cells last only 42 days as reported by Discover in 2002? Is the secret writing embedded in our money still 1/42 inch high as Nova PBS told us in 2002? Are there 42 political parties in Iraq as in 2004? Does the US government still own 42 percent of Wyoming and New Mexico? Does Hewlett Packard still earn 42% of its corporate profits from ink sales, as reported in 2007? Didn’t you always know they stuck it to us with those cartridges?

And, my personal life? A treasure trove of 42’s. That was the age my sister was when I finally managed to send her an email on her birthday. 42 degrees is the magic temperature where our cold weather dehumidifiers stop working. Our piano tuner says the ideal humidity for a piano is 42 percent – he doesn’t know about my obsession. The addition my father built on our childhood home was 42 feet deep. 42 was also the number of items on the hospital’s Patient Rights and Responsibilities List when I had my gall bladder removed in 2006.

When my husband Googled my second album released under my maiden name, there were 42,000 results, the first of which was a heavy metal website in Everitt, Pennsylvania that wanted $50 for “Harvest” they were selling as a rare Christian CD. I resisted the urge to write and tell them I had a few left that I would be happy to let go of for the bargain basement price of … oh, say 42 dollars.

And then there is astronomy itself. For how many years does daylight last at the poles on Uranus, for example? And nights? 42. This phenomenon is due to the fact that the axis of the planet is almost perpendicular to the plane of its orbit.

I wanted our nearest star to be 4.2 light years away. At first, I thought I was being let down in this regard. After all, Alpha Centauri’s two stars, often cited as the closest outside our own solar system, are 4.3 light years away. But, wait! The famous twin system includes a third smaller star, Proxima Centauri, which is 4.2 light years from Earth – well, 4.22, if you want to be technical.

Two of astronomy’s most interesting examples of Adams’ favorite number emerged after his death. In 2007, scientists discovered the dwarf galaxy Canis Major named for the constellation in which it lies, it is 42000 light years from the center of the Milky Way. The forty-second entry on my list is the Allen telescope array in the Cascade Mountains of Northern California, which has 42 dishes each twenty feet in diameter. Funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the search for extraterrestrial life began in 2006. Somehow, I think Adams would like that.

copyright 2009 by Donna W. Hill

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