Some people have too much time on their hands. Other people know when to stop. I am in the former category. Then again, maybe we all need to escape sometimes and preserve our precarious mental health.
Spoilers for ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’. I sometimes think I should just succumb to the inevitable and write a couple of hundred blog posts on the thing, but maybe not yet. But I will write at least one at this point.
“And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything. Unfortunately, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone, the Earth was unexpectedly demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass, and so the whole idea was lost forever.”
This is of course the opening narration from Fit the Second of ‘The Hitch-Hikers’ Guide To The Galaxy’, foreshadowing the big revelation a while later that the purpose of the Earth was to calculate the Question To The Ultimate Answer Of Life, The Universe And Everything. There are some problems with it. For instance, we’re told that it was right and it would work, even though it turns out the computer program has been messed up by the arrival of the Golgafrincham B Ark two million years previously with a hold full of frozen middle management people and telephone sanitisers (incidentally one of my aunts was one of the latter), so we might expect it not to work and to be wrong, but apparently it did. However, if we drop all this and just stick to the idea that Fenchurch, for it is she, is the final nexus of the computer program about to provide the readout of a successfully executed procedure to calculate the Ultimate Question, onto whom all events in the Earth are converging, the question arises in my mind as to whether there are any clues about the content of that revelation is.
In order to calculate the significance of Fenchurch’s life, it might be instructive to calculate the exact time this is supposed to be happening. We know the end of the world is on a Thursday because the narrator says “On this particular Thursday” just after Arthur says “I never could get the hang of Thursdays”, even though he doesn’t himself seem to be aware that it definitely is a Thursday. There are some problems with this. For instance, the conversation between Ford and the publican of the Red Lion in Cottington includes a reference to a football match involving Arsenal, which makes my poorly sports-educated brain think it’s more likely to be on a Saturday. This issue has unsurprisingly been discussed elsewhere. Another sports-related incident is the attack of the Krikkitmen on Lord’s Cricket Ground during the Ashes, which had taken place two days previously. Oddly, this is not mentioned by anyone on that “terrible, stupid Thursday” but this is along the lines of stuff that happens in the Whoniverse being glossed over by the general public, who only see what they want to see. After all, there is such a thing as a Somebody Else’s Problem (SEP) Field, an issue to which I shall return shortly.
The Ashes match took place some time in the 1980s. This is mentioned in ‘Life, The Universe And Everything’, chapter two I think. Every time England hosted the Ashes in the 1980s was in June, which contradicts other data. At the start of the first episode of the TV series, the sun rises in southwestern England at 6:30 am and the Earth is destroyed at 11:46 am. This can be assumed to be GMT rather than BST because the pubs are open and crowded and Arthur refers to the time of day as “lunchtime”. It places the date as one of four possible dates through the year, which drift somewhat during the 1980s because of the leap years 1980, 1984 and 1988. In fact the sun never rises at precisely 6:30 am in Greenwich, but at 6:29 or 6:31 instead, but in the West Country it will rise at a slightly earlier time because it’s further west. Taunton is three degrees, six minutes of arc west of Greenwich and Salisbury one degree, forty-seven minutes west. Arthur must live near Taunton because when he gives Fenchurch a lift, he almost takes her there, and Ford bought a towel from the Salisbury branch of Marks And Spencers, so the fictional village of Cottington is likely to be somewhere between the two of them. Consequently, the reported sunrise will be slightly earlier than the official sunrise at Greenwich, so the reported time is still possible. The four possible dates are 7th or 8th March or 11th or 12th September. Thursday falls on one of these dates five times during the 1980s: 11th September 1980, 8th March 1984, 7th March 1985, 12th September 1985 and 11th September 1986. It clearly isn’t in March according to the television series because it’s a warm sunny day, so it can only be 1980, 1985 or 1986. The Ashes took place in England in 1985, but as I said they were in June so this is unhelpful because it clearly conflicts with reality, so I’m going to put that down as a variation between our universe and this particular Hitch-Hiker’s universe, whereof there are of course many. One problem with the earlier date is that it occurs before the TV series was broadcast, and Marvin appeared on the radio in 1981 to claim that the world might end that year, so the only possibility remaining is Thursday 11th September 1986.
As for the time, it can also be calculated that the crucial moment of readout was 11:51 am GMT. Slartibartfast states that “five minutes later, it wouldn’t’ve mattered so much” if the Earth had been destroyed because that would have happened, so we know that it would have happened by five minutes after 11:46 am, in other words 11:51 am GMT.
That, then, is established. Fenchurch realised the Ultimate Question at 11:46 am GMT on 11th September 1986, and it would’ve been revealed to the world by 11:51, except that by that time there kind of was no 11:51 except on Arthur’s digital watch, where it was pretty meaningless because very few other planets would have similar orbits or rotations to ours and then there’s the whole “nailed to a tree” thing, which didn’t happen anywhere else either as far as anyone’s been told. But what’s happening in the café? Presumably her presence, demeanour, state and life story all have a bearing on this, as have the general configuration of objects and timing of events in that place. It’s been pointed out that the significance of a young woman suddenly having an idea in a café is different today, because J K Rowling wrote in them in the early 1990s, where she used to take her baby to help her sleep and she’d be able to write. I was doing something similar at the time in parks with my coursework for herbalism training. However, Rowling didn’t have an “aha” moment like Fenchurch’s in one, but on a train, so it doesn’t quite work, and Fenchurch isn’t a parent.
At this point I should return to the subject of the SEP Field. This was erected around the Starship Bistromath, which is of course powered by the Bistromath Drive. Bistromath is an apparently rather unpopular joke considered by some to be a failure, which capitalises on the idea that when you try to pay a restaurant bill and divide it fairly between members of a party, it never seems to work out properly. There are problems in the writing here, I think, in that there’s no direct connection between that idea and being able to relocate a spaceship, unlike the Infinite Improbability Drive which kind of works on something a bit similar to quantum mechanics. That said, if the Heart of Gold can use that kind of fake maths, why shouldn’t the Starship Bistromath? More to the point of this post, the rocket science possibilities of Bistromathics are not important to the situation I’m about to apply it to.
Numbers are not absolute but depend on the observer’s movement in restaurants. In reality this is probably due to the effects of the likes of the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, but passing swiftly over that as an anachronistic celebration of a substance abuse syndrome and concentrating on the actual “maths”, there are three non-absolute numbers: the number of people for whom the table is reserved, the recipreversexclusion and the most relatable relationship between the number of items on the bill, the cost of each item, the number of people at the table and what they are each prepared to pay for. Clearly these can be applied elsewhere, as the SEP Field involves the use of the recipreversexclusion. It’s a number which can only be defined in terms of what it isn’t.
Consider now the Ultimate Question/Answer problem. The two cannot exist in the same universe. You can either formulate the question correctly and never get an answer or find the answer, i.e. forty-two, and always fail to formulate the question correctly. This is remarkably similar to the recipreversexclusion and is even a number in one case. It’s also possible to conclude that Fenchurch herself would have to have a blind spot for the number forty-two or the two would coexist in her mind at the same time, which is impossible. In fact it’s even possible that she’s completely dyscalculic, and I don’t think there’s any evidence she isn’t.
Bistromath is shown working in the starship via a simulation of a meal at an Italian restaurant, which is so precisely defined that even moving a breadstick would mess things up. Fenchurch is sitting alone in a small café in Rickmansworth, another catering establishment, drawing a conclusion relating to what seems very like a recipreversexclusion. At this point I’m going to make a leap of faith and decide that Bistromath is going on in the small catering establishment concerned, just as it did two days previously at Lord’s Cricket Ground.
Probably the most relevant data regarding the events in that establishment are available in the opening to the second episode of the TV series. It can be seen from this that the café concerned is called the Silver Slipper, is at number 286, on the left hand side of its road and is red on the outside with blue and yellow walls and the same shade of red for its furniture as the outside. Fenchurch herself is seated at the second table on the right, next to the counter, facing the window, and has a black coffee with sugar and the remnants of a slice of toast at the table. During the shot, she stirs her cup twenty-six times before realising the meaning of life, pausing once after thirteen stirs. I would conjecture that she has in fact stirred her coffee forty-two times exactly by that point. Initially I thought her insight was connected to the turbulence of the milk but in fact the coffee is, unusually, black with sugar. She’s also wearing a Newnham College, Cambridge University scarf. This is a women’s college, of which the famous suffragist Milicent Fawcett was an alumna along with a very large number of other famous and successful people. The other two occupants of the café are a man in a donkey jacket looking at page three of The Sun in the window and the man who has apparently just served her, behind the counter. There are eight cups on the counter, a further cup being filled from the coffee machine, an unaccompanied cup on the table behind her and one sugar bowl per table. A poster behind her has the word “star” in red on it. All of these can probably be interpreted as clues. The total number of coffee cups is probably twelve. Fenchurch has red trainers, red nail polish, a fawn trenchcoat, long straight fair hair and is white. Incidentally, the actor playing her in the TV series is not credited and generally unknown. It’s later revealed that she was conceived in the queue at Fenchurch Street Station, which judging by the probability that she’s an undergraduate student in 1986 would have been in the 1960s, calling to mind the “early ’60s sitcoms” of which Arthur spoke. She also has a dismissive and annoying brother called Russell who thinks she’s insane.
The recipreversexclusion has already been accounted for: it seems to be participating in the thoughts currently occurring to Fenchurch. Her possibly specific number-blindness for the number forty-two may have been triggered if she was counting the number of times she was stirring her coffee. I think she was also expecting to meet someone there who hasn’t turned up, because that would be the first non-absolute number. It’s also possible that that person was about to arrive because that would also be a recipreversexclusion and perhaps that person would’ve been the first recipient of the Ultimate Question. It’s also remarkable that she didn’t think to share the information with the person behind the counter or the guy sitting nearby, and this too might provide a clue as to what it is. She never receives a bill, of course, what with the world ending and all, so that aspect of Bistromath doesn’t come into play and is in any case after the fact of the readout. It might even be that money itself would cease to have any meaning precisely because of the Ultimate Question, but this makes sense because all of the relationships between the number of people at the table, the number of items on the bill (either one or two) and the cost of each item are all fundamentally uncertain when combined. The street number, 286, seems to be entirely unremarkable, which corresponds to the integer forty-two, which is also unremarkable and “the kind of number you could introduce to your parents”. So far as I can tell there is nothing whatsoever significant about that number or its relationship to forty-two, which from a real world point of view is a little surprising.
I haven’t been able to draw much of a conclusion from this castle in the air but if I were to take this even more seriously I could practically found a religion on this. It is interesting that the date has to be September 11th though.