Day 714: The Great & Noble 42

originally published December 14, 2013

Mr. Foster, my fifth grade teacher, was the most feared educator at Laurier Heights Elementary/Jr. High school. He had a surly demeanor, a purposeful beard, and an affinity for Slim Whitman yodelling records: a sure sign of mental instability. He was also known for breaking wooden meter sticks in fits of rage when his class wouldn’t settle down. When you’re ten years old, just the suggestion of a rumor that a certain teacher could be prone to rage-soaked violence was sufficient to earn him a reputation.

I saw him do this only once that year, and it was a stomp with his shoe that splintered the wood, not a mighty saber-swing upon an unruly child’s desk. But you can be certain, our entire class immediately shut the fuck up. And we enhanced the story to the quivering grade fours at recess.

But despite his perpetual scowl, Mr. Foster made a powerful impression on me, and I’m certainly grateful for having braved the lore of his unquelchable temper. He also steered me toward my first experience with grown-up comedy in the form of a novel, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series. In these books – as any well-read geek will tell you – the Great Answer to the Great Question of life, the universe and everything is revealed to be 42.

And since today is Day 714, which is 42×17, I thought I’d see what else was so special about that number.

  • 42 is a Pronic number. This means it can be attained by multiplying two consecutive integers, in this case 6 and 7.
  • It is also an abundant number, meaning the sum of its proper divisors (1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 14, 21) is greater than the number itself.
  • It’s also a Catalan, Stǿrmer, Harshad, self, repdigit, primary pseudoperfect, super-multiperfect and sphenic number. It’s also a perfect score for the USA Math Olympiad, so maybe we’ll drop the math crap and let those people sort through whatever the hell all of that means.
  • The critical angle (rounded to whole degrees) for a rainbow to appear is 42 degrees, proving that the number has the power to bring beauty into this world.
  • 42 is the atomic weight of molybdenum, which was used in World War I armor plating. They built tanks out of the stuff, proving that 42 is also the number of war and destruction.
  • A mathematician named Paul Cooper postulated that the easiest way to travel around the world would be to install a long tube right through the middle. Suck out the air to make it a pure vacuum, and let people just fall through. They’ll spend half the time accelerating and half the time decelerating before gently touching down on the opposite side of the planet. Estimated time of travel: 42 minutes.
  • In the ASCII character set, the number 42 corresponds to the character ‘*’, the almighty asterisk. This is the symbol used as a wildcard in searches (searching for “*.docx” will bring up every Microsoft Word document on your hard drive). So here we see the number truly lives up to its claim to be the answer of ‘everything’.
  • The Gutenberg Bible, the first book to experience the joyous bliss of mass production, is also known as the 42-line bible, as it contains 42 lines of text on each page.
  • And speaking of the Bible, the number 42 is littering the landscape in that text. Matthew claims 42 names in the genealogy of Jesus. In the chipper chapter of Revelations, it’s said the Beast will hold dominion over the earth for 42 days. And in one of the Bible’s more wacky sub-plots, God unleashes bears to maul 42 of the teenage boys who mocked Elisha for his baldness.
  • Ronnie Lott, the beast of the San Francisco 49ers backfield of the 1980’s, wore number 42. Had he mocked Elisha’s chrome-dome, he would have beaten the ever-blessed crap out of those bears.
  • In Kabbalistic tradition, it is said that God created the universe with the number 42. So we’ve got “everything” and “the universe” wrapped up – Douglas Adams is 2/3 correct so far.
  • In Ancient Egypt, there are 42 principles of Ma’at, the personification of physical and moral law, order and truth. So 42 will make you the ideal person, at least by Ancient Egyptian standards.
  • Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll features 42 illustrations.
  • In Carroll’s book, the White Queen announces she is “one-hundred and one, five months and a day,” which works out to 37,044 days. If we assume that both queens are the same age, their combined age would be 74,088 days, which is 42x42x42. Intentional? I hope so.
  • The Los Angeles Lakers retired the number 42, worn by James Worthy. Worthy was a small forward for the Lakers, yet stood 6’9” tall. I just don’t understand basketball.
  • Watson, the IBM supercomputer that competed and trounced two of Jeopardy’s greatest all-time champions, has 42 threads in its avatar.
  • Tony Stark’s armor in Iron Man 3 was ‘mark 42’. This armor saves Tony’s life, which adds the final proof that Douglas Adams’ prediction of 42 answering life, the universe and everything is bang-on. If we assume Iron Man is real. Which I do.
  • There are 42 chunks of earth in the board game Risk.
  • There are 42 gallons in a barrel of oil. Or probably in a barrel of anything, but referencing oil sounds exciting and conspiracy-like.
  • The Tower 42 skyscraper in downtown London is located where Crosby Hall used to stand, built in 1466. Richard III used to live here, and Shakespeare even set a scene from his play by that title in the building.
  • Speaking of Shakespeare, Juliet, in her clumsy attempt at a happy-ever-after ending with Romeo, drinks a potion that makes her appear dead for 42 hours.
  • 42nd Street in New York City is home to the Chrysler Building, the single most exquisite skyscraper in the history of skyscrapers. That road will also take you to Times Square.
  • The only number retired throughout all of Major League Baseball is 42, the number worn by Jackie Robinson. On Jackie Robinson Day (April 15), every player wears ‘42’ because the guy was just that important to the sport.

The number pops up everywhere. And it remains a beloved digit to geeks all over the world, thanks to those books. If you aren’t familiar with the story, you owe yourself the treat. But despite Martin Freeman’s delightful portrayal of Arthur Dent, don’t see the movie – read the books. The full story deserves that respect.

Don’t make me get the meter stick.

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