09 November 2011

The Answer is 42

I was just reading a post in Linguist List (here) discussing the issue of making data available and thereby allowing research to be checked and replicated. In it, there is a quote from a book The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery, edited by Tony Hey, Stuart Tansley, and Kristin Tolle, including this extract:
I’ve talked about publishing literature, but if the answer is 42, what are the units? You put some data in a file up on the Internet, but this brings us back to the problem of files. The important record to show your work in context is called the data provenance. How did you get the number 42?
The use of the number 42 is not random. It is a direct allusion to the book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where a computer is programmed to solve the meaning of everything, and it comes up with the answer 42. So then it has to come up with the question, which turns out to be rather difficult. Quite a clever allusion, really, in the context of providing full details about published research.

What is interesting about this extract is that the allusion is not explained, as you are expected to know it. Explaining it (as I have just done) would be regarded as rather tedious for people who are familiar with the book and so know perfectly well what 42 refers to.

I have mentioned The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to some of my students in Brunei, and I have not yet found one of them who has heard of it, let alone read it. This means that none of them would pick up the allusion to 42.

Does this matter? Maybe you don't need to get all allusions, and you can still understand the basic ideas of an article with no problem. But it still seems to me that you are missing something vital if you read the extract I gave above and don't know about 42.

On the other hand, there are almost certainly lots and lots of allusions that I don't get, particularly as I don't watch very many films and I also don't read as much as I should. So perhaps I'm actually in the same boat.