Douglas Adams’ supercomputer Deep Thought famously proclaimed “42” to be the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. Although a joke, and a good one at that, it may just be correct. Or at least, no worse than any other answer.
“1.61803398874989..” is another candidate – the Golden Ratio – Phi ( ). How many numbers have their own website and a name, and a symbol? Ok, maybe Pi, I grant you, but not many others.
The golden ratio is simply a ratio of distances in simple geometric figures, but it appears everywhere – architecture, painting, music, design, cosmology and nature – to name but a few. It is as ubiquitous as David Beckham. It’s in our bodies – the ratio of the forearm to hand is Phi; the ratio appears in our face, teeth and feet. I believe it’s even found in our DNA double helix.
Back in the 1800’s Adolf Zeising found the golden ratio in the arrangement of branches along the stems of plants, and of the veins in their leaves. Then he found it in the skeletons of animals, and in the branching of their veins and nerves. He found it in the proportions of chemical compounds and the geometry of crystals. He saw Phi as a universal law. Leonardo da Vinci called it the divine proportion and he was a clever bugger. Not only a better painter than Rolf Harris – he also invented the helicopter centuries before the CAA would have ever granted it a permit to fly.
But I digress. If I had to pick a number as the ultimate meaning of everything I would go for something like “32”. This is 2⁵. Mankind has cleverly managed to reduce seemingly everything to a binary code, endless streams of 1s and 0s, a two state world of ‘on’ or ‘off’. The digital age is here – analogue is dead. From computers it has spread to digital TV, digital radio, MP3 players, our phones and our cameras. Film and videotape are dead. Records and cassettes are dead. Everything can be reduced to a simple two state code. This is both clever and, to me, a little surprising. Maybe it’s all simple after all.
We thus now measure in peculiar numbers that grow exponentially from the number 2. This is a topic to which I apparently refer a lot – I’ve been told that I talk a lot of number 2. One kilobyte (1k) is 1,024 bytes (2¹º), one megabyte 2²º bytes, a gigabyte 2³º bytes and a terabyte a whopping 2⁴º bytes.
And I used to think that a terabyte was something that happened when you sank your teeth into deep fried donkey’s dick.
These numbers are a bit big for the ultimate meaning of everything so I thought 32 seemed more manageable, and a better candidate than 42. 2⁵ is also much neater than 2⁵˙³⁹²³⁴ (approximately) – which doesn’t frankly sound like the ultimate answer to anything.
Digitisation too has revolutionised communications and shrunk our world, even if the universe remains a pretty big place. Whilst we truly do now live in the Information Age we are blessed with a brain to interpret all this information that has evolved in the Stone Age. Evolution seemingly has a sense of humour.
Most of us don’t really process numbers – we have a vague idea of magnitude but are a rarely driven by statistical probabilities. We fear terrorism more than being struck down by a car, or of getting type 2 diabetes. It is irrational in terms of the probability of what is likely to kill us. It reminds me of a George “Dubya” Bush joke. On hearing that two Brazilian soldiers have been killed in Iraq, he becomes ashen faced and oddly quiet, and then discretely turns to Dick Cheney and asks quietly “How many in a Brazilian?”
Worse still – we are deluded. We believe that we behave rationally. The constant chatter of the conscious mind is convinced it’s in charge, and drives almost everything we do. I have a good analogy – sadly not one of my own.
The conscious mind is like a man riding on an elephant. The elephant is generally co-operative and compliant and does as the man beckons. This further convinces the man that he is in total charge. And of course, it all works fine until the elephant wishes to do something different – for example, go stampeding through a forest or hump another elephant. Our poor hapless rider is helpless.
Unfortunately, the conscious mind is unable to recognise what has happened and comes up with a reason why he has instructed the elephant to run amok – “just giving her a surprise canter at full bore”, or something similar. There are good evolutionary reasons for our behaviour. Pondering the meaning of life when a mammoth was about to dine on you would be unlikely to get your gene pool passed on to the next generation.
And thus we buy shares when the stock market is high (and shares are very expensive) and we sell them when it crashes (when they are very cheap). We buy earthquake insurance after we have experienced a big earthquake (and the probability of another is low after the aftershocks have subsided) but not when we have lived for 30 years in an area prone for earthquakes but didn’t actually experience one, when the probability was increasing with each day that passed. Perhaps this is why Homer’s Doh! resonates with us all.
Where rational analysis takes us and where we want to go may not be the same place. We therefore compartmentalise our thinking into realms such as religion (or spirituality), science and philosophy simply because we cannot reconcile them. There is no one discipline “figuring stuff out”, which would make it all more coherent. These realms may not be entirely inconsistent – Fritjof Capra wrote the Tao of Physics – drawing comparisons between eastern mysticism and modern physics. Maybe these similarities are real and significant, or maybe both disciplines are simply equally impenetrable. Even so, it’s impossible to, say, reconcile Genesis with Darwin. Stuff like dinosaur fossils just get in the way.
So where does all this leave us?
Rational thought alone may not help us develop a complete theory of everything, or solve the DHL situation, or develop a new system of belief. Maybe we should look east, think less and meditate more. I still draw the line at deep-fried donkey’s dick.
Secondly, and more importantly, we can now understand why Jon feels that the Chan Jiang 750 is better than the BMW R1200GS. His conscious brain has come up with explanations to justify this preposterous position; they are clearly all bollocks. He is astride the elephant as we speak; as she raises her trunk and trumpets her blind terror he bellows “don’t worry about the noise – it’s just the tappets!!! It’s a little known undocumented design feature of the Chang Jiang 750”.