What Do You Get If You Multiply Six By Nine

You're reading this because of your interest in the densely allegorical work The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy written originally as a comedy sci-fi radio play by Douglas Adams. Adams has stated that the title occured to him during a transcendental experience "laying drunk outside a locked hostel one night while touring Europe on no-dollars-a-day", looking at the stars and wondering if there existed a traveller's guide for the galaxy. On the implication that this was a man in touch with his muse, it is reasonable to deduce that his inspiration may be that he was connected to his subconscious in ways similar to other observers.

It is not always true that the originator of an idea sees all the implications of their creation...

There is an irregularity that, for almost thirty years, seems to have escaped recognition in the publicity and analysis surrounding H2G2, including modern web pages, on the subjects of The Ultimate Answer and The Ultimate Question. There are many pages/nodes detailing "un-funny" base 13 and/or algebraic (1+5*8+1) explanations. Perhaps there is some metaphysical depth to be found in the topic.

Pre-empting the flamers: Adams stated "when considering what Deep Thought should answer after seven-and-a-half million years of computation [determining the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything] I looked out the window and '42' was it". Time enough for a muse to whisper in his ear. And, although the matching ultimate question could have taken many forms, Adams wrote the sardonic question as something that rings close enough to something appropriate as to be both entertaining and sarcastic.

Douglas Adams originally wrote H2G2 as a comedy sci-fi radio play. In a subsequent interview he talked about his ju-jitsu method of extricating the plot from dead ends whereby he used the force of opposition of his opponent against itself. When Arthur and Ford are tossed into space at the end of episode one, their improbable rescue was "ju-jitsu'd" into the birth of The Infinite Improbability Drive. Adams could have had the pair rescued by a convenient wormhole carrying them to safety. I appreciate the way Adams solved the problem. Convenient wormholes would have strained the credibility of the fiction.

In the same vein, Adams chose one of many possible devices through which a "question" could have been revealed from deep in Arthur's mind. Ghost writing, hypnosis, a cave painting, some lyrics to an annoying song Arthur can't get out of his head, to name but a few alternatives. In the original, therefore 'honest', version, Adams wrote that Arthur had a portable Scrabble set. The text of the question was revealed by drawing a sequence of letter-tiles from game's bag. 'W', 'H', 'A', 'T' and so on.

Observe closely:

In the radio-play Adams could invoke the defenses of 'Artistic Licence' and 'story progress' to overlook one small fact. Scrabble sets contain only 2 instances of tiles printed with the letter Y and the question requires 4 instances. (The BBC television series that followed transgressed further in that the props department did supply 4 tiles printed Y for the camera. Someone didn't do their homework. Check it out.) Scrabble does contain enough tiles to represent all the other letters of the question.

Adams chose to end the series with a final sardonic dig at the universe. As if there could be a comprehensible question, Adams chose to make that question equally humourous and meaningless and chose a simple math question compounding its uselessness by implying a B Ark passenger's grasp of math. SNAFU! Adams also chose the vehicle of the revelation of the question to be tiles from a Scrabble set. Whether or not Adams was ever aware of the problem of the shortage of Y tiles is unknown. Had he been bothered by this, a simple side step would be to phrase the question as, "What is the product of six and nine?", without a single Y required.

Considering the myriad possibilities to resolve this plot theme, it may be poignant that the obscurity of this oversight(?) is meant to beckon the gnostic. One could resolve some of this oversight(?) by noting that Scrabble also contains 2 blank tiles that act as wildcards. Perhaps Ford, who spoke the words the emerging tiles were spelling, was talented in Scrabble and merely interpreted these blank tiles as would make sense in their position for the words being constructed. WHAT DO YOU GET IF YOU MULTIPL_ SIX B_ NINE? The radio play doesn't give any hints.


First, the sound of the letter Y is homophonic with the English interogative 'Why?', which is THE existential question. Its companions, who, what, where, when and how are all pretty square head sorts of topics... These others address dispassionate factual themes. Why digs to the heart of motivation for creating incidents that the factual questions can address. Adams himself provided examples being, "Why are we born? Why do we die? And, why do we spend so much of the intervening time playing with digital watches?" as existential unknowns. Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" (refering to my w/u under Douglas Adams) could be paraphrased, "Why should I go on living?" Some might even suspect there could be a symmetry on these themes of 42 in that Hamlet's be is homophonic with the letter B sharing with Y, the position as the 2nd letter from one end of the English alphabet! Not as poetic, Shakespeare could have written something like "To live or die" for Hamlet... These are choices of the muse and the writer.

A second implication, perhaps encoding the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything derives from considering the lettered tiles used in forming the 6x9 question. All except for Y are run-of-the-mill, providing background and context for the hiccup of the required 4 instances of Y in the question. It is from the observation that two of the occurrences are explicit and mundane, while the other two are merely implied, that one can derive a deeper reflection of Life, the Universe and Everything.

To appreciate the art of creation and to successfully play the game of Life one must first perceive there is more to living than mere atoms and energy, the facts of existence. Real success comes when one is working in harmony with one's environment (rings of Taoism).

There are matters, issues and questions where the importance of correct perception and interpretation far outweigh the importance of enumerated facts. My favourite example is the adolescent angst over who might be one's date for the prom. It's pretty common fare that teenagers want to ask or be asked by their personal idea of 'dreamboat', the unassailable one in the school. The prom itself, the tux/gown, the stretched limo are all pretty mundane pursuits regulated by financial resources available and map easily onto the pre-printed Scrabble tiles of the question. But, the hopes/fears of 'who might be the partner for the evening' are nicely portrayed by the blank Scrabble tiles. Perceive and act (or refrain from acting) correctly and the world is your oyster. Make the wrong choice and live or die with the consequences.

For me, these aspects in the context presented in H2G2 do lead to philosophical, perhaps metaphysical, contemplation? Was this Adams' intention? This begins to ring of Zen Koans.

Further evidence?

In regard of the possible symmetry between 42 / 'Y' / why / Adams and 0x2B / 'B' / be / Shakespeare, and for those unwilling to credit the blank Vs. explicit tile ruminations above, there is yet another '42' bridge. Douglas Adams loved computers. Deep Thought and the earth were computers to him. In our day and age, computers use ASCII (mostly, although Unicode seems to be growing in importance). And the ASCII bit pattern for the character B just happens to be 0100 0010 which is represented in hexadecimal as 0x42. As "Forty-two" is the answer given by Deep Thought, a computer, the relevance of binary, ASCII and boolean to the theme is strong.

In conclusion, with a little stretch, it is possible to see relations, references and reflections between H2G2 and Hamlet, Adams and Shakespeare, providing wonderful fodder for contemplation of 'a deeper meaning'. After all, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy..."

And, what of chaos?

Does anyone have any insights to the answer/question duality in the light of the butterfly effect? Regardless of the precision of Deep Thought's registers, I can't help but think that there were enough iterations in its modelling and calculations that divergence from the true answer may have crept into the answer... Likewise, for the 10 million years less 5 minutes that the earth ran its program... Perhaps the A&Q should have been, 56 and What do you get when you multiply seven by eight? and all would be right with the world. Perhaps in an alternate reality.

Two personal disappointments over H2G2:

First, H2G2 goes out of its way to explain that, to an objective observer, dolphins were the second most intelligent lifeform on Earth, outstripping humans who rank but third. Dolphins left Earth (by their own unexplained means(?!)) shortly before its destruction. It would stand to reason that those departed dolphins must have also been part of the "last generation of the computer matrix". Perhaps Adams had intentions for a 6th book for the trilogy, had he not met his end so young. The film version is such a disappointing departure from the radio series, I wish Doug had stayed out of California and spent his creativity, time and massive talents on just such a 6th offering. Or, better, a third series of the radio-play version with all of its richness.

The second disappointment is that Adams dropped "the old man and what he perceives to be a cat" after the radio series. For all the insights to modern life and existentialism that H2G2 provides, this small segment probably cut too close to the bone. "Anyone who wants to rule should, for that very reason, never be allowed to rule." It's all too apparent how this would tread on the toes of those in positions of power. Instead, H2G2 on the big screen gives us the pablum of "Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl"... Ho hum.

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