a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
Douglas Adams
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Everyone ought to read this trilogy of four (or is it five now?) books that brilliantly combine science fiction with the drollest of British humor. Despite my high regard for it, I've not added it to the list of Mathematical Fiction simply because it does not have much math in it. (That seemed like a good reason.) However, I've frequently been criticized for this lacuna. Consider, for instance, this e-mail:

Contributed by Heather Moats

I came to your sight as a result of seeing the link in my latest Discover magazine, and was rather horrified by the non listing and very slight mention of Douglas Adam's "The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy". The main point in the book is the solving by a computer (Deep Thought) of the answer to the great question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, which turns out to be Forty-Two, and the quest for the Ultimate Question by the last surviving Earthman (Arthur Dent) to explain what the question means. The Earth itself turns out to be a gigantic supercomputer "with organic life itslef forming part of its operational matrix". And when Arthur Dent finds that two million years before his present, the program got cocked up by the "B" Ark Goglafrinchams landing on prehistoric Earth and replacing the actual "human" race, he discovers that the Question is "What do you get when you multiply six by nine?" This piece of British comedy has become a worldwide sensation and many people have taken the aswer of 42 to heart. The primary mathimatical joke of the Question being cocked up and so simple explains a lot about how we percieve the universe.

So, okay. I'll list the HHGG trilogy explicitly.

As for the significance of the ultimate answer to the question of the life the universe and everything (42), there are a few things to say. One is that I've heard speculation that this number was chosen because it is also significant in Lewis Carrol's "Hunting of the Snark". (I personally suspect it was picked simply because it was funny.) Also, although Heather Moats is correct to say that at one point the question "what do you get when you multiply six by nine?" is floated as the question, this is later discounted when it is realized that the universe was just a fake one made for Zaphod Beeblebrox. In fact, it is claimed in the book that the question and answer cannot both be known in the same universe (a sort of "Uncertainty Principle").

Also, it should be pointed out that 6 X 9 = 42 is in fact base 13. (That's because 54=4*13+2 while "forty-two" is 4*10+2...) However, Adams claims not to have known that when he wrote it.

Also, there is in fact a bit more math to it than just the "six by nine equals forty-two" joke. In addition, one has the infinite improbability drive:

(quoted from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)

The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Bambleweeny 57 Sub- Meson Brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian Motion producer (say a nice hot cup of tea) were of course well understood - and such generators were often used to break the ice at parties by making all the molecules in the hostess's undergarments leap simultaneously one foot to the left, in accordance with the Theory of Indeterminacy.

Many respectable physicists said that they weren't going to stand for this - partly because it was a debasement of science, but mostly because they didn't get invited to those sort of parties.

Another thing they couldn't stand was the perpetual failure they encountered in trying to construct a machine which could generate the infinite improbability field needed to flip a spaceship across the mind-paralysing distances between the furthest stars, and in the end they grumpily announced that such a machine was virtually impossible.

Then, one day, a student who had been left to sweep up the lab after a particularly unsuccessful party found himself reasoning this way:

If, he thought to himself, such a machine is a virtual impossibility, then it must logically be a finite improbability. So all I have to do in order to make one is to work out exactly how improbable it is, feed that figure into the finite improbability generator, give it a fresh cup of really hot tea ... and turn it on!

He did this, and was rather startled to discover that he had managed to create the long sought after golden Infinite Improbability generator out of thin air.

It startled him even more when just after he was awarded the Galactic Institute's Prize for Extreme Cleverness he got lynched by a rampaging mob of respectable physicists who had finally realized that the one thing they really couldn't stand was a smartass.

Is there any other math hiding in these books that someone would like to mention?

The HHGG was originally written as a radio series, then transformed into books, and finally into a television series. Someone must be working on the theatrical release right now, eh?

Contributed by Heather Moats

Thank you for adding this to your list. Doulglas Adams has been a very big influence on my life and the Universe has not been the same since his death.

The movie version of Hitchiker's will be released next Summer (May 2005) by Disney. [SEE, I told you! -ak] It is a project that Douglas worked very hard to get going during his lifetime, and it is a shame he won't get to see the culmination of his dream. Shortly after the first and second radio series were broadcast, the show was performed on stage in London and from whence the "Dish of the Day" sequence later used in the TV series came from. The "trilogy" has also been reprinted numerous times in both hardcover and softcover omnibus editions, turned into an Infocom game (now reproduced at the BBC4 radio website), a series of comic books, and the three books not originally made for radio are being translated to radio using most of the original cast (Tertiary Phase or Life, the Universe, and Everything aired this past Sept.). The twenty-fiifth aniversary edition of the first book has jsu bee released, with a very good overview of the series in it's various formats, and shows how even the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy exists in an almost infinite number of forms, as the universe itself does, almost, but not quite exaclty like itself.

Contributed by Angela

What about BistroMathics? "Bistromathics itself is simply a revolutionary new way of understanding the behaviour of numbers. Just as Einstein observed that time was not an absolute but depended on the observer's movement in space, and that space was not an absolute, but depended on the observer's movement in time, so it is now realized that numbers are not absolute, but depend on the observer's movement in restaurants..."

The film version opened in Summer 2005 and I must admit that I was surprised that it wasn't that bad! I'm not sure why they felt they had to restore the Earth at the end with all of the people and everything. That struck me as a bit hard to believe as well as a bit too "Disneyish". But, in general, it was quite enjoyable and a reasonable translation of what was a very linguistic experience into a very visual medium. (They kept in the improbability drive and the answer being "42" as well...though I still don't quite think of HHGTG as being "mathematical fiction", myself.)

Contributed by Sonja Dezman

When I think of this book I always start to laugh. There is something that will always remind of the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In this book there is a theory about mice doing experiments on human beings. At the time that I was reading it I had two mice as pets. One day I sat down, took them in my hand and asked them: "Are you doing experiments on me?". My sister thought that there is something seriously wrong with me. But the fact is, that the book had a huge effect on me! Since then I think differently about the world, about space, about my life. I know that it is only fiction, but it definitely changed my mind! The biggest question that will probably never be answered is how did Douglas manage to complicate thing so much and still connect all those little details together?!?

Contributed by Anonymous

You said about the world being returned was a little too disney-ish, but that does happen in one of the books.

I think the whole thing with 42 is fantastic, I've always thought myself that Douglas Adams was a genius, if not a math one, then at least a comedic one.

Contributed by david

You left out "bistro mathematics" as the succesor to the infinite improb drive. Compound interest to pay for the fabulous cost of the Restaurant at the End of the U

The book has more linguistic logic in it than math? E.G. 'I'll nver be unkind to a glass of water, again' or if its taken as read that Dent will lie in the mud in front of the bulldozers all day, then he doesn't actually have to be [t]here."

By coincidence, I was just reading Restaurant at the End of the Universe to my daughter as a bedtime story the other night and came across the entry on the rock band Hotblack Desiato. Their accountant creates a new kind of mathematics based on their methods of dealing with income taxes!

Contributed by Jesse Fuchs

Even though the actual amount of math in the HHGTG is fairly thin, its affection for the absurdities of logic shine through every page. And then of course there's the Infocom version [Ed. Note: Follow link and enter the "serial number" from the screenshot to play the game], co-written by Adams, which is entirely composed of 0s and 1s!

Contributed by Lapo Fanciullo

I'd like to point out that in the radio series - Fit the Ninth, to be exact - Marvin the Paranoid Android claims to have worked out a solution to the square root of minus one (I suppose he means a real solution, since he says that "it's always been thought impossible").

Contributed by Anonymous

HHGTTG is one of my favorite books, but I was dismayed by there being the "error" of 6x9=42.Thank you for telling up that this works in base 13, because 13 is one of my lucky numbers.

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Works Similar to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Mother's Milk by Andrew Thomas Breslin
  2. The Dark Side of the Sun by Terry Pratchett
  3. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
  4. Futurama (Episode: The Prisoner of Benda) by Ken Keeler (writer) / Stephen Sandoval (director)
  5. Bellwether by Connie Willis
  6. Doctor Who: The Turing Test by Paul Leonard
  7. Mathematicians in Love by Rudy Rucker
  8. All the Universe in a Mason Jar by Joe Haldeman
  9. The Anomaly [L'Anomalie] by Hervé Le Tellier
  10. Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison
Ratings for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
1.76/5 (17 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.61/5 (20 votes)

GenreHumorous, Science Fiction,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Probability/Statistics,
MediumTelevision Series or Episode, Novels, Films,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)