Since the Mythgard Academy has just wound up its class on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I think it’s a good time to tell you all what the Question really is. Several characters in the book got themselves all worked up because they know the Answer is 42, and there’s no way that such a big question can have such a simple answer. Idiosophy is here to help.

You know that the universe is really just a simulation, right? Well, most computer simulations have a pseudo-random number generator in them. The randomness does two things for us: it lets us account for unpredictable things like wind, and it lets us explore the whole range of things that can happen. For example, I might be trying to figure out how many checkout lines they need at the supermarket, and I might want to know how long the wait would be in the worst-case scenario, even though nobody can describe for me exactly what that is. I can randomize arrival times, number of items purchased, etc., and see which combination causes the worst (or best) result.

We can’t use real random numbers in simulations (assuming that such things aren’t a mere mathematical fiction) because we’d never be able to make sure the software was working correctly. We have to be able to run the program, fix problems, and then run again with all the same inputs to test that our repair job didn’t cause new problems in some other part of the system we’re studying. We use a pseudo-random number generator because it has a “seed” that we can set, which makes the numbers come out the same every time. When the time comes to really learn something, you change the seed to lots of different values.

So here’s the Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe, and Everything: “What seed should we use to start the simulation we live in, to make everything come out all right?

For what it’s worth, I ran this idea past the smartest engineer I know. He told me he never delivers a simulation without testing it with “42” first.