Monday, March 21, 2016

Math and Myth: 42

Certain numbers follow you around through life. It's an odd thing, but it seems true enough. People pick their magic or lucky or favorite numbers based on all sorts of things. 7 is very popular. I like 42. If you add 4 plus 2 and multiply that by 7, you get – wait for it – 42. My affair with 42 began in high school. My friends Robbie and Jackie Pira and I (OK – mostly them) invented a dice throwing baseball game. It was a variation on other similar games, but uniquely our own. We assigned the results for every throw you made, using two dice, one red and one white. The red number came first and the white second, giving us a two digit number starting at 11 and going 11-16, 21-26, and so on, through 66. There were lots of strikeouts but hits were harder to come by. 15 and 53 were home runs, 34 was a triple, and 65 was a double. We drafted our own teams from our Topps 1965 baseball cards, but there was no special calculation based on each player's known strengths or weaknesses. That was, the late great Jimmy Davenport could lead our league in home runs two years in a row while Mickey Mantle, despite every effort on my part to infuse good juju on the dice before I rolled, struggled to hit .200. It was nice and straight forward, unless you rolled a 42. 42 was special. When you rolled one, you took the red die and rolled it again. You always knew something good was going to happen: 5 or 6 was a double, 3 or 4 was a triple, and 1 or 2 was a home run. We could do a play by play while preparing to roll that crucial red die: “The runners are off! It's a long drive to deep right field! Going! Going! It's off the wall! Two runs will score and the Mick has a stand-up double!” Or: “It's in the corner! Willie's going to be running for days on that one!” Or: “Tell it good-bye – and other home run for Davenport!” I loved rolling 42's. Good things always happened with a 42. It was much later, after I became interested in history and baseball history, that I leaned that Jackie Robinson wore the number 42 on his jersey. His teammates, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges, each had 42 home run seasons at some point while playing alongside Jackie. In all, a player has finished a major league season with 42 home runs 38 times. Mantle did it in 1958. Since Major League Baseball has permanently retired Robinson's number to honor his contribution to baseball and to integration, Mariano Rivera, the Hall of Fame bound relief pitcher for the New York Yankees, is the last player ever to wear the number 42 on his jersey. Rivera, arguably the best reliever in history, ironically earned exactly 42 saves in post season play. There is a joy to the number, in how it plays within itself like a writer playing inside the canyons of his mind. 4 plus 2 is 6, 4 times 2 is 8, 4 minus 2 is 2, and 4 divided by 2 is 2. The games go on and on in perfect symmetry. Inverted, 42 becomes 24, Willie Mays' jersey number. In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a great computer called Deep Thought is working on the ultimate answer to life, the universe,m and everything. He discovers the answer is 42. But he is not capable of finding the ultimate question, to which 42 is the answer. That question will unravel all the mysteries of the universe, and a far greater computer than he must answer it. That computer is the planet Earth, which is set to do the calculations for however long it takes. Long story short: the question is, “What is 9 times 6?” Think about it. If the answer is 42, then there is something fundamentally wrong with the universe. How could I not love the number 42? There are 42 US gallons in a barrel of oil. If you could fold a piece of paper in half 42 times, it would reach the moon. There are 42 spots or dots on a pair of standard six-sided dice. In our above mentioned baseball game, with the extra roll on 42, there are 42 possible outcomes. Lewis Carroll frequently used the number 42 throughout Alice in Wonderland, which served as inspiration for Douglas Adams, author of the 5 book Hitchhiker trilogy. Book three, So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish, contains 42 chapters just to prove the point. There are 42 lines on each page of the Gutenberg bible. Probably my favorite President of all time, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, was the youngest person to serve as President when he took over those duties upon the assassination of William McKinley – TR was 42. And on and on. I was deep into adulthood when I learned that the house in which I was born was – drum roll, please – 42 Tromstraat, Hilversum, the Netherlands. And my nepthew and best friend besides Diane, Erik, lives in 24 Ravelijnstraat, as if he was a mirror of me. Poor kid. So excuse me if I am excited beyond normal limits that Diane and I will be celebrating, on December 28 this year, Anniversary Number 42. And bully to us!

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