Bread and Circuses

Author Douglas Adams (11 March 1952 – 11 May 2001) was asked many times why he chose the number 42 as “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” as stated by the supercomputer Deep Thought, specially built for this purpose. On 3 November 1993, he gave this answer on alt.fan.douglas-adams:

“The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought ’42 will do’ I typed it out. End of story.”

Adams described his choice as ‘a completely ordinary number, a number not just divisible by two, but also six and seven. In fact, it’s the sort of number that you could, without any fear, introduce to your parents. However, Stephen Fry, a friend of Adams, claims that Adams told him “exactly why 42”, and that the reason is “fascinating, extraordinary and, when you think hard about it, completely obvious.” Fry says that he has vowed never to tell anyone the secret and that it must go with him to the grave.

I am a fountain of utterly useless trivia and my thought on why the number 42 is that a former British cavalry officer named Philip Astley, born 1742 in Newcastle-under-Lyme, England reinvented himself as the world first real centre ring Circus Master.

Though Astley didn’t invent the idea of horse stunts, animal tricks, band music, and other diverse entertainment under a single venue, he was certainly the first to hit on the idea of those performers and animals doing so in the round, specifically a 42 ft (12.8 m) diameter ring, which remains the standard size used by circuses ever since.

In that light 42 serves as a pithy symbol of the human condition, bread and circuses folks, bread and circuses seemingly without end.

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