Google’s Douglas Adams Doodle: happy birthday old man

google doodle douglas adams
Google Doodle for Douglas Adams
As my site archives on H2G2 attest, I am something of a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy aficionado – if I had to rate my fandom, H2G2 would stand far above even Star Wars and Star Trek in my personal pantheon.

Click over to Google today (or check out the Doodle Archive page if you are coming late) to see the Doodle in all it’s glory. It’s got the requisite towel, cup of liquid that is exactly but not quite unlike tea, and of course the Guide itself, with “Don’t Panic” written on the front in large, friendly letters. And there’s a touch of Whovian/70’s scifi chic and sound effects to boot. Bonus tip: try actually using the Guide.

Douglas Adams would have been 61 years old today. He was one really, amazingly together guy. He was more than just a hoopy frood; he was so hip he had difficulty seeing over his pelvis. He was so cool you could store a side of beef in him for a month. He deserves not one Google Doodle, but 42 of them.

pondering the omnipotence paradox

Consder the classic omnipotence paradox, expressed as a logical conundrum thus:

Posit an omnipotent God who created the Universe. Can God create a stone He cannot lift?

If the answer is yes, then there exists a stone that God cannot lift, hence God is not omnipotent. If the answer is no, then God cannot do something, and hence God is not omnipotent.

Now, this is a bit of a problem for some as far as God’s existence is concerned (of course you can have degrees of omnipotence, but as far as the major religions go omnipotence is part of the job description).

However, the question itself is logically flawed, akin to asking “What color are the eyes of the King of the United States?” The reason for the flaw is because we are trying to shoehorn certain biased meanings into the words “stone”, “lift” and “cannot”.

Consider first the stone. The paradox doesn’t invoke more thorny creations like an equal to God (now, that would be a philosophical head-scratcher). It’s just about a stone. So, what is a stone? It’s a physical object, comprised of N ordinary bosons, and of radius R. Nothing more complex than that (though presumably at some very large radius R it would collapse under it’s own weight and become a neutron star). But let’s be really generous and rephrase the question, “Can God create a black hole He cannot lift?”

No, let’s turn our attention to lifting. For us to lift a black hole is sort of meaningless, but if you consider that to lift something is merely to manipulate it, then we can generalize further to “Can God create a black hole he cannot manipulate?”

Now by this point the Dawkins acolyte will accuse me of having moved the goalposts. “Surely your omniscient God could create a big stone, immune to gravitational forces which would cause its collapse but not immune to an external gravitational field which exists solely to provide something against which to literally lift it?” I suppose if you insist that this is different from what I described in my reformulation above, we can agree to disagree, because frankly creating a supermassive black hole (and just how masive, I am about to explore further) in an instant and then shoving it around seems pretty much just as miraculous to me. Then again, as a believer in a religious faith, I’mnot exactly addressing the paradox with an open mind, now, am I?

So let us continue. The last hurdle is the word, “cannot”. For a black hole to be so massive as to essentially be impossible to manipulate, it must be so large as to not provide any room for it to be manipulated. The physical manipulation of an object in N-dimensional space involves rotation about and translation along the N physical axes. Since God created the Universe of radius U, and the black hole is radius R, then the only way the black ole cannot be manipulated is if R = U – in essence, if the universe itself contains only the black hole (or the stone, if you insist) and nothing else.

Now, the question has reduced down to, Can God create the Universe? To which we already know the answer is yes, by virtue of the Posit above.

Alternatively, we could just be talking about a normal piece of rock, say the size of a softball, weighing less than a pound, and unremarkable in every way except that it has also been assigned a property that nothing (including God himself) can move it. This too is a meaningless paradox, though for a different reason than the one above. In essence, what does it mean to say that god cannot move it? God can choose not to move it, but since God is omnipotent, the definition of that power is that God can do whatever God wants to do. Defining omnipotence as “the ability to not do something” is not omnipotence but limitation.

To put it plainly, anything God creates, God can uncreate. Perhaps God can relinquish that power if God so desired; the ability to relinquish it would fall within omnipotence, but once relinquished, God would no longer be omnipotent. That doesn’t mean God wasn’t omnipotent before choosing to do so, though. In a sense, thats what this Interpretation 2 is asking: Can God choose to abdicate being God? The answer is probably yes, but that’s an affirmation of God’s present omnipotence, not a denial of it. Creating a stone He could not lift? No, he “can’t” do that, anymore than he can’t not be omnipotent while He is omnipotent.

That said, if you think that faith can be discussed with logic, then you’re kind of missing the point. But Douglas Adams said it best, which is rather ironic given how fierce an atheist he was.

This is what I do sometimes when I am procrastinating on doing something else much more important.

reality is filtered

I’m loath to interject politics or religion here – I already have venues for both elsewhere – but I can’t help my reaction to this:


Is that the face of God? in one sense, yes. That’s the 5-year data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and it shows the residual photos from the Big Bang, now cooled down to 2.725 +/- 0.0002 degrees Kelvin. Yeah, the color variations on that scale are only 2/10 thousandths of a degree. But what’s more striking about this is the implication of how much we don’t see:

The energy budget of the Universe is the total amount of energy and matter in the whole cosmos added up. Together with some other observations, WMAP has been able to determine just how much of that budget is occupied by dark energy, dark matter, and normal matter. What they got was: the Universe is 72.1% dark energy, 23.3% dark matter, and 4.62% normal matter. You read that right: everything you can see, taste, hear, touch, just sense in any way… is less than 5% of the whole Universe.

The WMAP data also conclusively demonstrates that the Universe is flat, which has further implications about the inevitable and fundamental limitations of our observational capabilities:

Our successors, whoever and wherever they are, may have no way of finding out about the Big Bang and the expanding universe, according to one of the more depressing scientific papers I have ever read.

If things keep going the way they are, Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University and Robert J. Scherrer of Vanderbilt University calculate, in 100 billion years the only galaxies left visible in the sky will be the half-dozen or so bound together gravitationally into what is known as the Local Group, which is not expanding and in fact will probably merge into one starry ball.

Unable to see any galaxies flying away, those astronomers will not know the universe is expanding and will think instead that they are back in the static island universe of Einstein. As the authors, who are physicists, write in a paper to be published in The Journal of Relativity and Gravitation, “observers in our ‘island universe’ will be fundamentally incapable of determining the true nature of the universe.”

Krauss has a piece in Scientific American where he expands on this:

We are led inexorably to a very strange conclusion. The window during which intelligent observers can deduce the true nature of our expanding universe might be very short indeed. Some civilizations might hold on to deep historical archives, and this very article might appear in one—if it can survive billions of years of wars, supernovae, black holes and countless other perils. Whether they will believe it is another question. Civilizations that lack such archives might be doomed to remain forever ignorant of the big bang.

Why is the present universe so special? Many researchers have tried to argue that the existence of life provides a selection effect that might explain the coincidences associated with the present time [see “The Anthropic Principle,” by George Gale; Scientific American, December 1981]. We take different lessons from our work.

First, this would quite likely not be the first time that information about the universe would be lost because of an accelerating expansion. If a period of inflation occurred in the very early universe, then the rapid expansion during this era drove away almost all details of the preexisting matter and energy out of what is now our observable universe. Indeed, one of the original motivations for inflationary models was to rid the universe of pesky cosmological objects such as magnetic monopoles that may once have existed in profusion.

More important, although we are certainly fortunate to live at a time when the observational pillars of the big bang are all detectable, we can easily envisage that other fundamental aspects of the universe are unobservable today. What have we already lost? Rather than being self-satisfied, we should feel humble. Perhaps someday we will find that our current careful and apparently complete understanding of the universe is seriously wanting.

So, that WMAP data above? An ephemeral wisp of data that will fade away. We are fortunate in that sense to be able to see the face of God, because it’s not going to be there forever.

Sometimes I wonder if we really aren’t living in Douglas Adams’ universe after all. Where else, in a Universe where the Ultimate Answer is 42, and the Last Message to Creation is “we apologize for the inconvenience”, would it be true that someday, the Big Bang is destined to someday be a mythological event whose existence will be unprovable by the best available evidence? Will the WMAP data become the icon for Unintelligent Design?

Google 42

TechCrunch had a little blurb about Google’s investment in DNA sequencing. Duncan Riley threw a little 42-based humor in there for fun – check out his suggested Google logo for the project. Presumably they aren’t out to clone Douglas Noel Adams.


Wouldn’t it be cool to have a Greasemonkey script that did nothing but substitute the above logo for the standard one at the Google homepage?

The Ultimate Answer

On a whim, I searched my RSS reader for any instances of 42. The result was disturbing. I think, just for a sense of completeness, I’m going to blog every reference of 42 I can find. Note that the politics-content of is still intended to remain zero. I instead request that commentary on these items be restricted to the larger and more important issue of how the occurrence of 42 in the story at hand might lend clues towards divining the Ultimate Question.

Let’s get started. Today’s 42ism comes from the UK, appropriately enough.

Gordon Brown is facing the threat of his first defeat in the Commons since taking over as prime minister, after a Guardian survey found strong – and growing – opposition among Labour MPs to the government’s plans to detain terror suspects without charge for up to 42 days.

(followed by lots of blah blah about governmental something or other)

Intriguing. This suggests that 42, manifesting as a number of days for incarceration, is a proxy for the balance between the principles of human rights versus society’s need for security. Perhaps more broadly we might say that here 42 is a stand-in between the forces of chaor and order, where chaos is the expressive element of the Universe and order is the emergent structure that arises from it.

Douglas Adams Avenue

What a hoopy idea:

On May 11, 2001 a very talented writer and activist was taken from this world far before his time. Not yet 50 years of age, Douglas Adams passed on and left a legacy for all that would come after him.

It it with honor and humor that Geek in the City and the Group ask the citizens of Portland to accept the changing of 42nd Avenue into Douglas Adams Boulevard.

Transforming 42nd Avenue into Douglas Adams Boulevard will reflect upon all those who live and work in the City of Portland.

It will reflect Portlanders’ commitment to the arts.

It will reflect Portlanders’ respect for the environment.

It will reflect Portlanders’ desire to provide technological access to all.

It will reflect Portlanders’ passion to further education to all people.

It will remind all Portlanders’ the most important lesson in times of uncertainty and fear…


That is so amazingly cool you could keep a side of beef in it for a month. The idea is so hip it has difficulty seeing over its pelvis.

The ultimate answer

Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy have built up an entire mythology about the number 42, despite Douglas Adams’ (DNA) insistence that the whole thing was just a big joke. Maybe a joke in base-13, but still a joke. The number has in some ways become a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that it pops up everywhere so often that one can’t help but wonder if it isn’t just fan energy driving it.

Well, as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction.

Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy have built up an entire mythology about the number 42, despite Douglas Adams’ (DNA) insistence that the whole thing was just a big joke. Maybe a joke in base-13, but still a joke. The number has in some ways become a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that it pops up everywhere so often that one can’t help but wonder if it isn’t just fan energy driving it.

Well, as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. From Seed Magazine, an article that makes a link between the prime numbers, 42, and the moments of the Riemann zeta function. In other words, the number 42 holds the key to possibly unlocking the secret of the prime numbers themselves, and thus answering an ultimate question of the basic structure of our universe (made physically manifest in the physics of atomic energy levels of heavy elements like Erbium).

So, in a very real sense, the number 42 is the answer to an ultimate question. Whether that is the ultimate question or not is left to the working thinkers [1]. But here’s something else to think about: the zeta function is closely related to the Zipf distribution – which governs the fundamental statistics of the World Wide Web. So perhaps blogging about 42 has deeper meaning than we suspect…

Continue reading “The ultimate answer”