As any fan of Douglas Adams's Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy books knows, the answer to this question is 42. Adams has always claimed that he picked the figure for no particular reason, yet startling new discoveries show that he may have been right. For the number 42 is the common factor linking several major religions, exerting a powerful influence on writers of fantasy and holding ladders up.
In an article entitled 'Why 42?' recently published in the little- known journal Chapter One (which describes itself as the Fanzine of the Alliance of Literary Societies), Ellis Hillman, 64, the founder of the Lewis Carroll Society (and president of the Flat Earth Society in his spare time), begins with a quotation from Alice in Wonderland: 'Rule Forty Two - All persons more than a mile high to leave the Court.' The number 42 exerted a curious fascination on Carroll. The Baker in Hunting of the Snark (which Carroll began writing at the age of 42) had 42 boxes bearing his name; another Rule 42 occurs in the Preface to the Snark; and he refers to his own age as 42 in Phantasmagoria, though he was still in his early thirties at the time. It might all have been a premonition of his own death at the age of 42, but Carroll's real identity as the Rev Charles Lutwidge Dodgson offers a more convincing explanation.
Dodgson presumably knew of the 'forty and two months' which the Gentiles would tread the holy city, as predicted in the Book of Revelation, and the 42 generations that separated Adam from Jesus Christ. He must have known about Thomas Cranmer's 42 Articles, the 42 Levitical cities and the 42 sacrifices of Balach in the Book of Numbers. Perhaps his interest in comparative religion had alerted him to the existence of a 42-armed Hindu God, or that 42 was a sacred number in Tibet, or that the fate of the dead in ancient Egypt was decided by 42 demons. At the last judgement of each human soul, one represented each of 42 demonic dioceses in Egypt and claimed the soul if it had personal knowledge of sins committed within its area of responsibility.
The latest addition to Mr Hillman's 42-file adds further conviction that it is indeed the mysterious force holding the universe together: in the current building regulations, the maximum permissible angle between a ladder and the ground is 42 degrees.
'There must be some mathematical basis underlying all these 42s,' says Mr Hillman, who is becoming ever more convinced that there is an important question to which 42 is the answer. But he is still searching for it.
What Mr Hillman would like is something more convincing than Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent managed. The best they could do for the Ultimate Question was 'What do you get if you multiply six by nine?' (sic).
Further unusual uses for the number 42, or questions to which 42 might be the answer, or sightings of the number 42 in significant places should be sent to Creativity, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.
We hope to return to this theme at a later date as well as forwarding your ideas to Mr Hillman. Next week, we shall report on your ingenious uses for safety pins.