Don’t throw in the towel

A look at Douglas Adams’ weird and witty answers to Life, the Universe and Everything

May 30, 2017 05:20 pm | Updated November 11, 2017 03:26 pm IST

It is only poetic justice that one is frantically writing on Douglas Adams as the clock ticks remorselessly. Unlike Adams who loved deadlines for the “whooshing sound they make as they fly by,” the piece has to be written. So here goes.

Many moons ago at FTII in Pune, sitting around the Wisdom Tree with actor Ravi Baswani, someone mentioned Life, the Universe and Everything . That set the ball rolling, with everyone having their favourite Douglas Adams quote, book and story. Someone had a recording of the 1978 BBC radio comedy, which is where the increasingly-inaccurate trilogy of five was born.

At university, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (H2G2) was common ground for all disciplines. A physicist and a linguist could equally marvel at the infinite improbability drive. Here in no particular order, sequential, alphabetical or chronological, are some (only an infinitesimally small part) of the British humourist’s inspired awesomeness.

Towel Day

The reason for the piece, Towel Day was first observed on May 25, 2001, two weeks after Adams’ untimely death at the age of 49. As H2G2 explains, “any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.” May 25 is also observed as Geek Pride Day, and incidentally, 40 years ago on May 25, a space opera was born in a galaxy far, far away.

Arthur Dent

The hapless earthling whose house and planet are destroyed on one fateful Thursday, Arthur is rescued in the nick of time by Ford Prefect. He travels the galaxy in a dressing gown. His weakness for tea causes super computers to go bust. Martin Freeman, before he took up residence in the Shire or 221 B Baker Street, played Arthur in Garth Jennings’ 2005 movie.

Ford Prefect

Alien journalist and field researcher for the Guide, when he came to earth, chose his name mistakenly, thinking cars were the dominant life form on the planet. A week’s research trip extends to 15 years before Ford escapes with Arthur. Ford is 200 years old, from a tiny unnamed planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and somewhat related to pretend president Zaphod Beeblebrox.

Zaphod Beeblebrox

With two heads and three hands, we meet the intergalactic president of good times when he steals the sports shoe-shaped spaceship, Heart of Gold, during its unveiling. Eoin Colfer, who wrote And Another Thing , the sixth book in the series, said he liked Zaphod because “he works in today’s day and age, he is very much like a reality TV star—famous for being famous.” He was also voted ‘Worst Dressed Sentient Being in the Known Universe’ seven consecutive times.

Eccentrica Gallumbits

The triple-breasted shady lady from Eroticon 6 has fond memories of the time she spent with Zaphod. She has a walk on part in both versions of Total Recall .


A Magrathean designer of planets with a weakness for fjords, Adams made up the name to sound both rude and broadcast worthy.


The villains of the piece, they are ugly, cruel, and like Captain Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz reveals, like to torture harmless hitchhikers and stowaways, by making them listen to truly terrible poetry.

Wowbagger, the Infinitely Prolonged

Cursed with immortality, Wowbagger finds purpose by abusing every being in the universe—alphabetically. After calling Arthur a jerk, Wowbagger moves on to Folfanga to insult a slug.

Deep Thought

The super computer was created by very intelligent beings that look like white mice, to find out the answer to life, the universe and everything. After much thought and seven-and-a-half million years of work, it came up with the answer, 42. Deep Thought then built an even more powerful computer, the Earth, to find out the ultimate question. After 10 million years of computation, five minutes before giving the answer, the Earth is destroyed.

Infinite Improbability Drive

Based on a precept in quantum physics, Adams says he discovered the Infinite Improbability Drive when he had written himself into a corner and the options of getting out were all equally implausible.

Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster

Created by Zaphod, the effect of the drink “is like having your brains smashed out with a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick”—wonder what the hangover would be like.

Total Perspective Vortex

The worst torture device ever, the Total Perspective Vortex shows what a tiny speck one is in the universe. While Adams says the Drive proves “in an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion,” Zaphod survives the vortex to eat fairy cake.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Apart from being the second book in the series, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is a delightfully twisted example of the space-time continuum.

Don’t Panic

Excellent advice and the reason The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sells better than Encyclopedia Galactica.

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