October 10, 2010 18 Comments
Today is 10/10/10, which is not only one of the relatively rare occasions on which one can write the date without fear of ambiguity in today’s cosmopolitan world, but also the binary expression of the number 42, and hence the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.
How can I let that pass without a short memorial to Douglas Adams? After all, it won’t come around again for another century and by then I’ll be getting on a bit and might not remember.
But what memorial? I’ll start with one of my favorite quotes. It’s of no import whatsoever but it still makes me laugh every time I think of it, and what’s bad about that? It’s Douglas in his best P.G.Wodehouse mode. The man was a genius at saying things in a way that catches us short:
‘Dirk, please, if you would,’ said Dirk, grasping his hand warmly, ‘I prefer it. It has more of a sort of Scottish dagger feel to it, I think. Dirk Gently is the name under which I now trade. There are certain events in the past, I’m afraid, from which I would wish to disassociate myself.’
‘Absolutely, I know how you feel. Most of the fourteenth century, for instance, was pretty grim,’ agreed Reg earnestly.
Dirk was about to correct the misapprehension, but thought that it might be somewhat of a long trek and left it.
But here’s something more relevant to both the date and the theme of this blog. Back in the late 90’s my colleagues and I organised a really enjoyable conference on Artificial Life, to which Douglas came. I’d asked him to chair a debate but he balked at this and decided to give an impromptu talk instead (well, fairly impromptu – he tried it out on Richard Dawkins and me the night before in the bar). It was a triumph. Ann transcribed it for us and it now rests for the sake of posterity in Douglas’s official biography. The whole transcript is pretty long (and anyway it’s available on the web in various places), so I’ll just quote a short section for auld lang syne:
I want to pick up on a few other things that came around today. I was fascinated by Larry [Yaeger] (again), talking about tautology, because there’s an argument that I remember being stumped by once, to which I couldn’t come up with a reply, because I was so puzzled by the challenge and couldn’t quite figure it out. A guy said to me, ‘yes, but the whole theory of evolution is based on a tautology: that which survives, survives’ This is tautological, therefore it doesn’t mean anything. I thought about that for a while and it finally occurred to me that a tautology is something that, if it means nothing, not only has no information gone into it but no consequence has come out of it. So, we may have accidentally stumbled upon the ultimate answer; it’s the only thing, the only force, arguably the most powerful of which we are aware, which requires no other input, no other support from any other place, is self evident, hence tautological, but nevertheless astonishingly powerful in its effects. It’s hard to find anything that corresponds to that and I therefore put it at the beginning of one of my books. I reduced it to what I thought were the bare essentials, which are very similar to the ones you came up with earlier, which were “anything that happens happens, anything that in happening causes something else to happen causes something else to happen and anything that in happening causes itself to happen again, happens again”. In fact you don’t even need the second two because they flow from the first one, which is self-evident and there’s nothing else you need to say; everything else flows from that. So, I think we have in our grasp here a fundamental, ultimate truth, against which there is no gain-saying. It was spotted by the guy who said this is a tautology. Yes, it is, but it’s a unique tautology in that it requires no information to go in but an infinite amount of information comes out of it. So I think that it is arguably therefore the prime cause of everything in the Universe. Big claim, but I feel I’m talking to a sympathetic audience.
And he was.
So what did Douglas think about 42? I have a small personal insight into that, because Ann asked him to sign a copy of my all-time favorite book, for my 42nd birthday present. I’ll post that too, because the Web perhaps doesn’t fade as badly as paper. That was over ten years ago. Poor Douglas didn’t make it to my age.