William Hartston unravels the true significance of six characters in search of a number
The most significant moment in next Monday's television programme For the Love of ... Numbers comes close to the end, when Don Stallybrass, an astrologer and poet, is asked when he first became fascinated by the number 42. "It was 18 May 1993," he replies with unexpected precision, "when I saw this article by William Hartston in The Independent."

Well, I'm terribly sorry to have to admit it, but it's time to come clean. The answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is not 42 after all. It's 103 and I can prove it. But first, the programme.

For the Love of ... Numbers (Channel 4, midnight, Monday 10 March) begins with six characters who have found the secret of the mystery of life. All you have to do, it seems, is pick a number - almost any number will do - and wait for it to turn up on a passing bus, newspaper or hotel room. If you pick a small number, you'll soon be deluged with coincidences. If you choose a large number, you get fewer hits, but the feeling of joy when your number occurs is immeasurably greater.

The superstitious sextet begin by introducing themselves and telling us their numbers. There is Gerald Suster, whose favourite number is 93 (though he later admits that his own number is in fact 419) which was a number of great significance in the life of the occultist Aleister Crowley, a biographical subject of Mr Suster. He's very impressed that we're 93 million miles from the sun, but must be disappointed by kilometres.

Then there's Nigel Bourne, a paganist and musician, and Chris Gutteridge, a nasal youth with a skimpy beard, both of whom share the number 23. Graham Roos has a busier life, being fond of two, seven and 11, while Meg Pringle Adamson's number is five, "the number of freedom and expansion" - and she should know, because she writes personality reports on people based on numerological aspects of their names and dates of birth.

Don "42" Stallybrass was initially impressed when he read in this paper of the apparently coincidental occurrences of the number in various ancient religions and in the works of Lewis Carroll, all long before Douglas Adams discovered 42. Mr Stallybrass is now very fond of all multiples of his chosen number, especially 588. (You'll find a Stallybrass on page 588 of the Brighton phone directory, incidentally, and the joy he felt at being allocated room 588 in a Vienna hotel cannot be described.)

Anyway, with Jon Ronson acting the part of a hyper-gullible, totally laid-back presenter, these six participants engage in energetic and portentous chat about their numbers, saying things such as: "The universe is predicated upon number", and "23 always seems to come up in my experience when there's a random factor disrupting order" (23, incidentally, crops up a good deal in various episodes of The Simpsons), or "Nine, of course, is the moon number; the number of change."

"Of course" is one of those phrases that they all use in a rather different way from the rest of us. In the language of numerology, "of course" appears to mean "what I am about to say is totally unsustainable by any known form of logic". Another such word is "interesting" which is used in the sense of "mind-bogglingly dull".

Often, the conversation gives the impression of being conducted by six blinkered number-fetishists, each running in his or her own lane oblivious of all numbers other than their own. Except for the two 23s who occasionally make contact with each other, and Mr two-seven-11 who is veering about all over the track. The seventh participant, the presenter, really should have been a little more critical, if only to give the others something to gang up against. As it is, they spend too much time nodding conspiratorially at each other and smugly sharing the delights of mystic enlightenment.

Seven, of course, is a very spiritual number. A recent (unpublished) communication to our letters page contained the top half torn from our front page of Tuesday, 25 February, annotated with arithmetical calculations. The number of that edition of the paper was 3,229: 3+2+2+9=16 and 1+6=7. Now, seven is also the number of letters in "Tuesday" and "Weather" both of which occurred just below the masthead. Just below that, drawing attention to the "Analysis" feature inside, were the words, "Who cares if the sky is falling", which, if you add together the letters in each of its words, gives 3+5+2+3+3+2+7=25 and 2+5=7 again. The headline "The King's Road irregulars versus the jungle rebels" contains 43 letters (4+3=7) and the sub-heading "Security firm hired to end guerrilla war" has 34 letters (3+4=7). Even Colin Wheeler's cartoon (note the seven letters in "Wheeler", incidentally) had a 34-letter speech bubble. And it was, after all, 25 February (2+5=7).

We do not know precisely why the letters editor chose not to publish this chilling information. It may have been that it arrived anonymously - just an annotated torn sheet of newspaper in an envelope - or it may have been on the very reasonable grounds that the year is 1997 and 1+9+9+7=26 and 2+6=8. Had it happened last year, we'd have been delighted, but since the first of January we've been collecting only eights. Anyway, it's good to know that there are people out there adding up the numbers of letters in all the words on our front page in search of enlightenment.

Neither seven nor eight, however, is the real answer. And neither is 42. The true answer came to me in a flash while watching a preview tape of next Monday's programme. Take the numbers given by each of the six participants when introducing themselves at the beginning and add them all together, and you get 93+5+2+7+11+42+23+23 which gives a total of 206. Now 206 equals two times 103. Remember that.

Now take the word "bullshit" and add together the positions in the alphabet of its letters: 2+21+12+12+19+8+9+20. What's the answer? Why, it's 103 again. And finally, what is the date on which this highly significant programme is to be broadcast? The 10th of March. That's the 10th day of the third month. 103 again. Uncanny.

Of course, diehard fortytwoists will doubtless point out that if you add the one and the three of 103 you get four, and if you subtract the one from the three you get two, which brings us back to 42. Yet there can be little doubt which of 103 and 42 has the primary role in this calculation, and which emerges as a mere corollary of numerological truth.

In view of our evident culpability in promoting the cult of fortytwoism on various occasions over the past few years, and with particular apologies to Mr Stallybrass, we feel that the least we can do is to offer our limited services to help in the promotion of the new religion of 103ism.

If any potential converts have details of remarkable sightings of the number 103 or its multiples, we shall be pleased to hear from them. Contributions (no prizes in this world; this is a divine calling) to: The Games Page, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL. Mark the envelope "103" in a manner that will not confuse the postman. We shall collate replies and report back at a later date.

Finally, and as a cautionary tale, we end with a little numerological game played on viewers by Jon Ronson at the end of Monday's programme:

Think of a whole number between one and nine. Multiply it by nine. If your answer has two digits, add them together. Subtract five from your answer. Now work out which letter occupies the position in the alphabet given by your answer. Think of a country beginning with that letter. Take the second letter of the name of that country. Now think of an animal beginning with that letter. Imagine the colour of that animal.

Are you now thinking of a grey elephant from Denmark? No? Well, neither did I. In fact I ended up with a brownish jerboa from Djibouti. Which just goes to show that this numberological nonsense doesn't work for everyone.

It is very interesting, of course, to note that the number of Germans expelled from Britain for soliciting or opportuning between the years 1907 and 1914 was equal to exactly 103. Which, by a remarkable coincidence, is precisely the answer that emerges from an analysis of the numerical content of a forthcoming television porogramme on numerology. Uncanny, or what?