Non-Fiction Reviews

The Science of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

(2005) Michael Hanlon, Macmillan, 16.99 / US$24.95, hrdbk, 195pp. ISBN


This year (2005) has seen the BBC broadcast of the 4th and final radio series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which includes a character 'played' by the late author Douglas Adams (actually based on an audio-book reading he did of his novelization. The year has also seen the Hollywood version of the radio series. Ironically Hitchhikers was originally conceived as a big-budget film but Hollywood (back in the 1970s and probably still would today) said that such ideas were too way out an non-commercial. (How many potentially brilliant films and books have we lost because some commissioning executive felt that complexity and sophistication in plot and/or wit will not sell because the audience or readership is not sufficiently sophisticated: this of course sells consumers short.) However, as we all know, the huge popularity of the original radio series led to the equally hugely popular novelizations and now we have a bastardised Hollywood version with Adams' name appended even though he had zilch to do with its scripting and production in its post-commissioning years. Of course much has to do with big bucks, and indeed, with regards to the books, big Pounds. So, not surprisingly there are spin-off publications, and so it was probably inevitable in an infinite number of parallel universes that make up the multiverse, not to mention computer simulated universes that have proved so popular in some executive offices, that there would be a s 'science of...' book along the lines of previous ones covering the X-Files, Star Trek, etc. And so we now have Michael Hanlon's The Science of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The Hitch-hiker's Guide is, of course, hard SF. That is to say SF that is based 'more' firmly on known scientific principle than say pure fantasy. Some may feel this observation to be a little odd given that The Hitch-hiker's Guide is so way-out and whacky. Fortunately, as it happens, science is also way out and whacky. How else would you describe our space-time continuum and its associated mass and energy that is asymmetric, and both observer unfriendly (Heisenberg) as well as friendly (Strong Anthropic Principle), not to mention infinite (be it open or curved) in a finite sort of a way (big bang to proton decay). In short there are stacks of science angles to explore with many opportunities for the wacky to be included.

Hanlon launches his book with a whimsical and eclectic recap of aspects of scientific (and technological) development with reference to the Guide. (Hanlon never really distinguishes between science and technology so take it as read that the book covers, what is known in the trade as, SET (science, engineering and technology).) He then dives into several big questions, one per chapter but each of which leads to other sub-set questions and his summarising how our scientific understanding and technological achievement to date relate to these and some likely prospects for future understanding and technical development. These chapters cover the prospects for alien intelligence, sentient all-powerful computers, God, the end of the universe, the big bang, translation technology, teleportation, ethical food, perceiving the universe, parallel worlds, risk (probability) and hazard, and ultimate questions (covering grand unified theory, self-determination and so forth). There is even a chapter on 'Babel fish', which given some recent rumours that 'Alta Vista' may have copyright which reportedly caused a problem for the Hollywood film's DVD extras. This aside, the ground Michael Hanlon covers is vast and there is something there for anyone at all interested in science or who genuinely wonders about life, the Universe and everything.

Covering so much ground does mean that the topics are covered in a way that is an inevitable compromise between doing each sufficient justice to make it an interesting read, and superficiality in order to get it all in. It is here that many a writer could stumble. Michael Hanlon, though, acquits himself rather well. Not only is his style easy to read but, given the need to be brief, his coverage is fairly accurate as far as it goes. Yes, look at any chapter and you will find over-simplifications (such as his puzzlement as to where the second objects come from (and go to) in time loops) and some concepts that underpin a number of topics go unmentioned (free energy, as in Gibbs, for example). There are even some possible errors mainly due to there not being space for clarification and caveats. For example, the Babel Fish chapter mentions the 'creeping dominance of English as the global lingua franca'. This really is only true in developed (OECD) nations as globally English as a first language has declined from nearly 9% of the global population in the middle of the last century to around 6.5% today, and if current trends continue it will be surpassed as the World's leading first language by Hindu/Urdu around 2025. Indeed looking at current trends then be amazed by Arabic which has risen from a little over 2% of the World population in 1950 to around 4% today. If this trend continues it will overtake English around the middle of the 21st century. Indeed Chinese (be it Mandarin or all Chinese dialects which share a common writing system) currently (2005) have three times the first language speakers than English... However, given the task Hanlon faces, problems with the detail are virtually inevitable.

Of course 'Science of...' books have to do what it says on the tin and so in this case Hanlon has to relate his whirlwind tour with The Hitch-hiker's Guide. The publisher does this with dolphin motifs separating each section. Hanlon does it by beginning each chapter not only with a quote from The Hitch-hiker's Guide but by referring the scientific understanding he elucidates to The Guide itself. This largely works well. Having said this, one would ideally like to know more about Douglas Adams' own thought processes in relating science and technology (he enjoyed science at a popular level and was a technology and a gadget-phile). Alas, unfortunately for Hanlon, the man has been long dead, and Hanlon never ever met him when he was alive. Consequently such insights are far too few, though it is revealed that '42' did not arise out of base thirteen or Tibetan Monks. I would have liked to have known more and here I am confident that I am not alone. Indeed as Hanlon could have taken measures to include such insights such as talking to his biographer but I suspect that would have meant a consultative fee.

All said and done, Hanlon has come up with an eminently readable whirlwind tour of some of the more interesting aspects of science and technology that has been neatly achieved by using Adam's work of whimsy and sense of wonder and whacky as a filter. That Hanlon occasionally include Adamesque-type observations and quips further helps. That this is a extremely easy to read book despite the complexity of the topics over which he skates and without being unduly superficial, is probably down to him being a science writer for Britain's Daily Mail. Now if you are into popular science and science in the (British) media, you may at the mention of the Mail, be taking a sharp intake of breath. So here is the position...

The Daily Mail is a lightweight newspaper that (for our non-British surfers benefit) sits in the middle between the broadsheets and the gutter press. The paper's science coverage is, it has to be said, a little simplistic and tends to be biased to maintaining its middle class, mainly female, and slightly right-wing readership's perceptions. So in the past the paper has had somewhat debatable coverage of issues such as AIDS (possibly before Hanlon's time at the Mail) and in recent years this has been manifest in, for instance, an unhealthy (as opposed to healthy) scepticism that global warming is taking place. Those who are less charitable might say that the paper sometimes overly distorts science reportage way beyond the ethical. Those who are charitable say that 'contrary' views are necessary to challenge orthodoxy and a right in a nation with a free press. Here I have a personal take, having met Michael Hanlon (I invited him to give a presentation at the Royal Society as part of a science communication to the public meeting for life scientists in 2001) and having read his recent SF short story as part of the 'Futures' series in Nature (which also, coincidentally, happens to be published by Macmillan). This last is an amusing jibe at climate change science that belies a real understanding of the problems. I therefore suspect that his journalistic science coverage owes more than a little to his employers' editorial restrictions rather than any personal quirk. You can't really blame the man for this after all he is a jobbing journalist. Fortunately in The Science of the Hitchhiker's Guide case, it being commissioned independent of any editorial constriction has resulted in a book free of such idiosyncrasies. So you can breath easy were you one of those having a sharp intake...

Hanlon's book, coincident with the final series and the film, has come out at the right time. That it is very easy to read and treads the fine line between the sensational, in-depth coverage and superficiality to make it comprehensible for a large audience, augurs well. Indeed Macmillan tell me that it is already 'flying off the shelves'. Admittedly, for many of our Science Fact & Fiction Concatenation regulars, much of the book's meat will be familiar. Equally, I am sure that many will find some new thoughts and perspectives and if you are into The Hitchhiker's Guide and not bought a general popular science book for a few years then you can do no worse than get this one either for yourself or a friend (for Christmas, birthday, whatever). Indeed even if you do know it all, there is such charm and ease to Hanlon's account that you may welcome it as a casual read. Above all, the public's immediate reaction to the book is a testimony as to how SF as a genre does, for a good many, actively stimulate an appreciation of science. This is something that bodies that represent science have singularly failed to pick up. So good on Hanlon I say.

Jonathan Cowie

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