A Blog for the Curious and the Scientifically Perplexed

This is the story of a great journey that started with a great thought. One day in 1895 a boy looked into a mirror and wondered what the universe would look like if he could travel on a beam of light. That sixteen year old boy was Albert Einstein and that one thought started him on the road to discover his Theory of Relativity. The great man has been reinvented as Albert 2.0 to come back and blog about a journey through space on a beam of light and explain the science behind everything from atoms, blackholes to global warming. If you've just joined and want to start at the beginning use the index on the left. If you're bored try these links below just for fun.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Meaning of Life (according to Albert 2.0)

“Hey Albert, have you noticed this is the 42nd post on your blog?”


“So now you’ve covered every other angle on life, how about telling me the meaning of life?”

Well, I could try but what does that have to do with the number 42?

“In Douglas Adam’s book The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, it’s the answer to life, the universe and everything. A race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings built a monster computer called Deep Thought that took seven and a half million years to work out the answer which was… 42. I know it was after your time but haven’t you come across that yet?”

No, but a hitch-hiker’s guide to the galaxy would be fun. What I don’t understand is that if the answer was 42 what was the question?

“Exactly, so you have read it.”

Not at all, I just couldn’t imagine trying to find the answer without knowing what the question was.

“That was the funny bit. They asked for the answer but forgot to be precise about the question.”

Why was that funny?

“Ok Albert, we’ll work on your humour programming later, but if you are so smart and the answer is 42, what could the question be?”

Do you mean what is the right question to ask if you want to find the answer to life, the universe and everything?

“Well I was more thinking of why the answer to life, the universe and everything might be 42.”

What if it isn’t?

“You’re the one that said imagination is more important than knowledge, so imagine for a moment the answer is 42. What could the question be?”

Hmmm, a tricky one….I know. What is the secret of a rainbow?

“Brilliantly random, but what are you talking about?”

42 degrees is the angle that light is reflected inside a raindrop to make a rainbow.

“Are you serious?”

Absolutely, that’s the only important question I know about the universe that has the answer 42.

“So how does that explain how a rainbow works?”

A rainbow forms because a raindrop can act just like the prism that Isaac Newton used to split light into different colours. When ray of sunlight hits a raindrop it is bent and split into colours as it passes through the middle of the drop in the same way as a prism. It then reflects off the back of the raindrop like a mirror and comes back out of the from of the raindrop, bent round by 42 degrees. In fact it is not always exactly 42 degrees because each colour or wavelength of light is bent by a different amount, blue more than red, which is why the colours are spread out into a rainbow in the first place. The laws of optics tell us there has to be a fixed angle between the sun, the raindrops and you the observer. That’s why a rainbow will move away as you move towards it – you can never reach the end of a rainbow which is why it is such a good place to hide pots of gold.

“I always knew those leprechauns were clever.”

Clever indeed, but let me ask you a question, and this question will help explain the meaning of life. What is more important, knowing how the reflection angle of light inside a raindrop forms a rainbow or looking at a rainbow in wonder in the first place?

“Oh, well I suppose knowing how a rainbow is formed is better than just gawping at it.”

I wasn’t thinking of gawping at a rainbow but looking at it in wonder. That is more important than knowing how it works.


Because without a sense of wonder you won’t be able to appreciate the beauty of a rainbow or anything else. If humanity lacked wonder then who would have bothered to find out the secrets of rainbow?

“But what does knowing the secrets of a rainbow have to do with the meaning of life?”

The most remarkable thing about the universe is that it is understandable at all. The journey of discovery towards understanding starts with wonder. A famous Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said a very wise thing back in 1951, ‘life without wonder is not worth living.’ I remember as a child being given a compass and being completely fascinated by what invisible force could keep it pointing north. That gift helped ignite a sense of wonder in the physical world that I’ve never lost.

“I’m still not clear what that has to do with the meaning of life?”

Do you really want to know?

“Of course.”

Well to capture the meaning of life in one sentence I’d rephrase Abraham Heschel’s words and add the missing final link. Life without wonder has no meaning, so the meaning of life must be wonder itself.

“Life without wonder has no meaning, so the meaning of life must be wonder itself…..mmm…. deep.…but cool all the same…..and 42?”

Next time you see a rainbow, stop what you are doing and just sit and watch it. Then you’ll find out the real importance of 42…. and of being alive as well.

P.S. More on Heschel, Adams and Einstein.

Enjoyed it? Then Digg it.