Equation 42

When my friend, Harry, told me that he wanted to apply for the position “Head of Equation 42”, I first thought he might be crazy. He was a postdoc with a bright future. Clever, imaginative, hard-working, and courageous. His PhD thesis on the behavior of atoms in small-confined areas of heat radiation had already been cited more than one hundred times. It might have been cynical of me, but I firmly believed somebody with such academic talent ought not to risk it as Head of Equation 42. Therefore, I sat him down on a late Thursday and asked him what he had heard about the previous occupants of the position. He answered rather elusively, which was not surprising, given that nobody who held the position had ever been allowed to talk about what the job actually involved. However, in my years at the faculty, I had seen how the equation had depraved and degenerated those who had held the position, and so, I took the opportunity to flesh out the history of the Head of Equation 42 for Harry.

George was the first person to take the position. Since he was an esteemed professor, he agreed to only have responsibility for the equation until they had found someone who could dedicate more time to it. However, after the first two weeks, George started to spend more and more staring at that equation on his black programming screen. Sometimes he would alter a part of the equation, and then he groaned, as if he felt physical pain. Fanatically, he would put in different values and run the equation. We sometimes found him sitting by his computer screen in the early morning, running the equation time and time again. Nothing changed, just running the equation. His hair grew dim, the bags under his eyes swelled. On the fourth month, his wife brought him to an asylum. On the fifth month, it didn’t look as if George would get any better, and she threatened the sue the university. Word has it that she received a large compensation concealed as an inheritance from an aunt nobody knew she had. The media kept pestering her, but she has refrained from talking about the equation ever since.

Amanda took over for George, and, being an extrovert in nature, her change was more profoundly outwards than his. When she met us for lunch, she would talk excessively about religion. She was a dedicated Christian, but she became ever more obsessed with different religious theories on what awaited after death, from Heaven to reincarnation. She spoke about these theories in a mad fashion, as if she desperately tried to convince herself of their appeal by saying them out loud, and she became fiercely defensive if somebody questioned her. Then started the more dark theories. “Have you heard about Dante’s Inferno?” she asked me once in the corridor. “It describes the seven layers of hell matched to each of the deadly sins. Do you know what it’s like to be dissolved by stomach acid raining from the sky?” She made me feel very uneasy, and I started avoiding her as best as I could. Half a year after accepting the position, she had gone to a company to have herself frozen down alive and stored in one of those lockers to be heated up at a later point in history. “When they have found a cure for death,” she had told them explicitly.

And Fred Van Vermington, who had come up with the equation – God knows what had happened to him. They keep discovering little, yellow notes all over the university building. Some under the sink, some in the ceiling, some between books in the book shelf. “I am subject 5 739 101”, “Always stay conscious”, “It is waste”, “Death is hell.”. We burn the notes. The university is very secretive about equation 42.

Harry just smiled at these stories. “Thing is, these people were all scientists in a liberal fashion,” he said. “They believed that science would make the world a better place. The way I see it, that is not the main task of science. Science, my friend, is supposed to reveal the truth. Why are we here? Where are we going? What awaits us? These are the questions science are meant to answer – and they should not be clouded by neither ideology, nor personal sentiment. That is why I believe I am better equipped to have the position as Head of Equation 42, and that is why want the position. I am a realist.”

Harry, I have to admit, lasted longer than both George and Amanda. One year passed by where he maintained and worked to develop the equation. Yet, I was there to observe his full transformation. I could see how he gradually came to drag his feet when he walked, scowl at his colleagues, answer in one-syllable words. He stopped discussing scientific matters with me. When I asked if he had any papers to work with, he just stared at me, as if I was stupid. Once, I asked him to give me feedback on one of my papers. The copy is full of his red little comments, such as “what’s the point?”, “do you even know what you’re talking about?”, “why do you bother?”.

Even though I wanted to talk to him about his transformation, I couldn’t. That’s the curse of being Head of Equation 42 – you are bound by contract not to tell anyone what you’re working with. I therefore kept a professional distance.

Spring was dawning on us when we started discussing the smell that came from Harry’s office. None of us had seen him in several days. He had locked himself up at his office, and an odor of something sweet-sour rotten, like when you pass a trunk of garbage on a hot day, was in increasing intensity reeking from his office. We notified the janitor, but he couldn’t enter the office without permission. He told the university administration, but they had to get a permit from the government. The stench became unbearable. Two weeks passed by where we knocked and hammered at the door, shouting at Harry to have him leave the office and go home. In the end, I decided to tear open the door and kindly ask Harry to leave.

The sight that met me chilled me to the bones. Harry’s skin was pale and wrinkly. His eyes were glassy. He sat, naked, crouched, by the wall, in a pool of blood. A few flies were nibbling on his earlobe. All over his body, he had cut in zeros and ones, as if he had tried to make himself into a code. On his desk, we found an equation that looked much like equation 42, but with some alterations. “I found the solution 🙂 – Harry”, it said below.

We tried running his equation on a small machine, then on a large machine, then with a few changes to the code, with different data and with different values. Yet, it always gave the same output:

Error.

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