A scene from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy 2005

Warwick Davis, Martin Freeman, Sam Rockwell and Mos Def in the 2005 film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.Credit: Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams Pan (1979)

It begins simply. “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.”

Hear Shamini chat to Nature’s Ed Gerstner and Karl Ziemelis about science since The Hitchhiker’s Guide was published.

Astonishingly, it is 40 years since Douglas Adams published The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. We’ve since replaced digital watches with smartphones and virtual assistants, and we rarely describe them as “neat”. Yet the themes of the book have hardly dated. As ecosystems are destroyed to make way for roads, artificial intelligence (AI) threatens to get seriously unruly and the Universe continually reveals it’s a lot more complicated than we thought, Adams’s creation and its deadpan surreality never seem to fade.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide began life as a BBC radio comedy in 1978, a year before the first book was published. Adams wrote four more volumes. Before he died in 2001, the 5 books had between them sold more than 15 million copies. The scientific community teemed with fans, including the late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who provided the voice of the titular Guide in a 2018 radio reboot of the story.

The plot of The Hitchhiker’s Guide centres on permanently bemused human protagonist Arthur Dent, who wanders the Universe after the destruction of Earth with alien travel writer Ford Prefect and a crew of oddities including two-headed galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox, an unhappy robot named Marvin and Trillian, an astrophysicist. (Among their real-world namesakes are asteroid 18610 Arthurdent. The fungus moth Erechthias beeblebroxi and fish Bidenichthys beeblebroxi, meanwhile, both bear patterns that mimic extra heads, to confuse predators.) There are hyper-intelligent ‘mice’ and a supercomputer, Deep Thought, which famously construes the answer to the ultimate question of life, the Universe and everything as 42.

The writer Douglas Adams standing in a field

Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the radio series on which it was based.Credit: Kenneth Stevens/Fairfax Media via Getty

Like all the best science fiction, The Hitchhiker’s Guide says more about our times than about the distant future. It’s true that there are plenty of digs at life in 1970s Britain. ‘Ford Prefect’ was a British car popular at the time, for instance. But evergreen insights about subjects such as bureaucracy abound. The Vogons, for instance, are an alien race collectively disinclined to save their grandmothers from certain death without orders “signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters”. As for politics, Adams noted: “Anyone capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

Adams got a lot right on science, technology and their uses and abuses — quite a feat, given the huge advances made in the intervening four decades. There is the Guide itself: a 3 × 4-inch electronic screen with access to a huge searchable repository of information. (Laptops didn’t appear until the 1980s.) The Babel fish, an alien organism capable of instant language translation, served as a conceptual kick-start to numerous online translation applications.

But Adams was just as likely to poke fun at technology. Critiquing the need for multiple secure passwords, he creates a fictional “Ident-I-Eeze” card designed to hold all of them; it is promptly stolen. Plenty of other inventions go wrong in all-too-recognizable ways. Future AI is programmed with “genuine people personalities”; the result is paranoid androids and annoyingly cheerful doors. A psychic drink synthesizer provides a liquid “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea”. There’s a radio controlled by sophisticated motion-detection sensors, which demands that listeners sit stock-still to avoid changing the station. “Technology,” Adams once said, “is a word that describes something that doesn’t work yet.” That might be why The Hitchhiker’s Guide states that one of the most useful things a person can own is a towel.

Humanity’s overweening confidence in its own intelligence also gets a skewering. Adams casts dolphins, for example, as a spacefaring species more intelligent than humans. Indeed, since 1979, researchers have learnt more about the brains of dolphins, whales, non-human primates, birds and invertebrates such as octopuses, discovering that these creatures are capable of more complex behaviours than we thought. Those findings suggest that Adams was right to lampoon the way we define intelligence by our own standards.

A scene from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" 2005

Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) and the robot Marvin (Warwick Davis) on the planet Magrathea in the 2005 film.Credit: Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

His commentary on our limited view of the Universe is even richer. Dent lives a constrained existence until his cosmic adventures fling him into wonders he had no clue existed. For us on Earth, however, it is hard to really grasp how “utterly insignificant” our “little blue green planet” might, or might not, be.

Our telescopes can study only astronomical phenomena that happened in just the right place and time to be picked up as faint signals years — or even billions of years — later. Our biologists can study in depth only one kind of life that evolved on one planet with one set of constraints. There is no currently plausible way for us to journey beyond the limits of a tiny bubble in the observable Universe. But in So Long And Thanks For All The Fish (1984), the fourth book in the series, Dent’s extraordinary voyage graces him with the knowledge that our “big, hard, oily, dirty” planet is a “microscopic dot” in the immensities of space.

Science advances, however, from imaging a black hole to exploring quantum weirdness, and our perspective grows apace. We can’t predict what unimaginable features of the Universe the next 40 years will reveal, but perhaps that’s for the best. As Adams noted: “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”