Study Guide

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Science

By Douglas Adams


Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. (Introduction.1-2)

The very opening of Hitchhiker's Guide tells us how unimportant we all are. It starts with a mix of scientific terms: the western spiral arm of the galaxy is unfashionable, the sun has an unimportant planet at a distance of 92 million miles, and so on. If you know your astronomy, you know that's us. How often do we get a look at our planet from such a cold, distant, scientific viewpoint?

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value—you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you—daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough. (3.6)

We don't often think about towels as pieces of technology, the end product in a whole chain of scientific discoveries, but it is. Adams gives us some reason to reconsider towels as technology by showing us everything it can do. While each example has some reminder that this is science fiction, almost every use is something that we could easily be familiar with.

The report was an official release which said that a wonderful new form of spaceship drive was at this moment being unveiled at a government research base on Damogran which would henceforth make all hyperspatial express routes unnecessary. (5.39)

Science and technology march on, but not always quickly enough. Here, Jeltz has just destroyed Earth to make room for a hyperspace express route, but at around the same time, the government unveiled the Heart of Gold, which makes hyperspace express routes as obsolete as cassettes. (We miss you, mix-tapes, but you're obsolete.) If science had only been a little faster, or the Vogons a little slower, we might still have Earth. But that's Hitchhiker's Guide for you, a book in which things rarely work out.

The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Bambleweeny 57 Sub-Meson Brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian Motion producer (say a nice hot cup of tea) were of course well understood—and such generators were often used to break the ice at parties by making all the molecules in the hostess's undergarments leap simultaneously one foot to the left, in accordance with the Theory of Indeterminacy. (10.4)

How long do you think it would take between the invention of a new technology and someone's total misuse of said technology for pranks or jokes? Our guess is 0.01 seconds. That seems to be the case with improbability generators, which can do amazing things. They can also, as we know, be used to move people's underwear as a party trick. Note how Adams mixes scientific ideas like Brownian motion with non-scientific things like tea or small talk at parties. Science may be pretty amazing, but people can be pretty foolish.

If, he thought to himself, such a machine is a virtual impossibility, then it must logically be a finite improbability. So all I have to do in order to make one is to work out exactly how improbable it is, feed that figure into the finite improbability generator, give it a fresh cup of really hot tea ... and turn it on!
He did this, and was rather startled to discover that he had managed to create the long sought after golden Infinite Improbability generator out of thin air. (10.8-9)

Like the Babel fish story, this section gives us brain cramp. This student uses the idea that something is impossible to conjure the "Infinite Improbability generator out of thin air." In other words, because it's relatively impossible, it's possible. Oh, our brain. Also, to us, "out of thin air" sounds either absurd or magical, which defines the way a lot of us relate to science: we use a lot of technology that we (non-scientists) don't understand. It would make sense if we stopped to learn about the science, but we're too busy watching cat videos on YouTube.

The machine was rather difficult to operate. For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as the technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch-sensitive—you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same program. (12.1)

Science and technology march on—but don't mistake "change" for "progress." Sometimes science marches on into a swamp. Sure, radios have more sensitive controls that need less work, but there's a downside too, as Zaphod discovers when he tries to listen to the radio and remain totally still. It's funny to us that the more sophisticated technology becomes in Hitchhiker's Guide, the more you have to simply hope that it will work—like when Arthur turns on the Infinite Improbability Drive as a last resort when the missiles are closing in.

"Same as you," she said, "I hitched a lift. After all with a degree in math and another in astrophysics what else was there to do? It was either that or the dole queue again on Monday." (13.69)

First: "Dole queue" = "Welfare line." Surprisingly, "astrophysics" = "astrophysics." Maybe Trillian is joking, but it does point out that opportunities for scientifically minded people are better out in the galaxy, where there's better technology to play with. But let's be real: with all those degrees, what is it Trillian ends up doing on the Heart of Gold? She reads out some probability numbers, but it's unclear if she's actually doing the math or just reading numbers the computer is giving her. Most of the time it seems like she's just following Zaphod around and helping him in his schemes. That's hardly scientific.

He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject's taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject's metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject's brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. (17.1)

In the Hitchhiker's version of the universe, technology may be advanced, but that doesn't mean it works right. Sometimes, as with the radio, that advancement means it's harder to use. Adams leads us through this joke meticulously, noting how amazing the Nutri-Matic machine is in one long sentence that lists everything it does, and that's all very scientific. But it seems like it's just for show, since the Nutri-Matic always produces the same drink.

"And it occurs to me that running a program like this is bound to create an enormous amount of popular publicity for the whole area of philosophy in general. Everyone's going to have their own theories about what answer I'm eventually to come up with, and who better to capitalize on that media market than you yourself? So long as you can keep disagreeing with each other violently enough and slagging each other off in the popular press, you can keep yourself on the gravy train for life. How does that sound?" (25.80)

As we've seen in Hitchhiker's Guide, scientific examination isn't some sacred job that's separate from the rest of life and culture. Here, Deep Thought reminds us how closely these issues are intertwined: while he (scientifically) figures out the answer to a problem, the philosophers can make serious bank by appearing on television and writing popular philosophy books. So this scientific issue will have serious cultural results.

"Yes, an electronic brain," said Frankie, "a simple one would suffice."
"A simple one!" wailed Arthur.
"Yeah," said Zaphod with a sudden evil grin, "you'd just have to program it to say What? And I don't understand and Where's the tea?—who'd know the difference?"
"What?" cried Arthur, backing away still further.
"See what I mean?" said Zaphod and howled with pain because of something that Trillian did at that moment. (31.87-91)

The mice are generously offering to replace Arthur's brain with an electronic brain and some money. This is clearly not a good idea, as we can see with Zaphod's "sudden evil grin" and the fact that Trillian is against this idea. (Trillian may not get to shine as a scientist here, but she's a better moral guide than Zaphod.) But notice how Adams plays with Arthur's reactions, making his responses simple: he repeats what Frankie says and says "What?" just as Zaphod predicted. However, since Arthur is our touchstone character, the idea of practicing mad science on him surely shows some downside to science. We don't care if Earth seems unimportant; that's no reason to dice our brains.