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Monday, 14 May, 2001, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
Adams' humour lives on
Beeblebrox was Dr Whitehouse's hero
BBC News Online's science editor, Dr David Whitehouse, pays tribute to Douglas Adams, the creator of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, who died aged 49.

Douglas Adams changed the way I looked at the Universe. Before he came along, I'd read much science fiction but I soon discarded Isaac Asimov, not because his ideas weren't good, but because of his schoolboy prose.

I dwelt on Arthur C Clarke for longer because of his grand ideas but none of these space prophets ever realised that the Universe had a sense of humour.

Behind the gas clouds, the star clusters and the mighty, whirling galaxies was a joke being played on all who took life, the Universe and everything too seriously.

It was with humour that Douglas explored the cosmos and the paradoxes of space in time.

Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams: Combined sci-fi and comedy
He reasoned that if we ape-descended things made such a mess of our lives, cramming them full of petty, stupid things and thinking digital watches were a really neat idea, then just imagine what the really serious and powerful lifeforms would get up to.

So for me, and my fellow budding scientists, eager to overthrow authority, it was Zaphod Beeblebrox who was our hero.

Star Wars had a semi-mystical mumbo jumbo about the force that pervades all living things bringing order to the galaxy.

Star Trek had everyone joining the military, exploring space with orders not to interfere, before they poked their nose into every alien's business.

Simon Jones as Arthur Dent and Richard Vernon as Slartibartfast
Arthur Dent and Slartibartfast became cult figures
But Douglas Adams had a completely different view. Although not the first to combine science fiction and comedy he was by far the most successful.

And in so doing perhaps he probed a little deeper into the deepest of mysteries. He once wrote of a computer - the most advanced ever built to determine the answer to the ultimate question.

After seven and a half million years of processing, the answer was 42 - only stupid ape-like creatures hadn't formulated the question properly. And so it is with modern science.

Scientists can find out how the Universe works but they do not know the question to which the laws of the cosmos are the answer.

'Don't panic'

And when I try to explain the scale of space, I can do no better than: "Space is big - really big - you just won't believe how vastly, hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. You may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space."

It should be in every science textbook.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is, of course, a wholly remarkable book that contains advice for any conceivable situation and predicament.

Behind its cover with its warm, friendly words Don't Panic, it says writers are destined to inhabit the universe they made.

So let's imagine Douglas Adams having dinner at the restaurant at the end of the Universe, cracking jokes with the intelligent sea mists of Krakafan and tossing scraps for the ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, and teaching us as much about our place in the cosmos as any scientist.

The BBC's Nick Higham
"Douglas Adams... proved to be a visionary"
The BBC's David Whitehouse
"Douglas Adams changed the way I looked at the Universe."
See also:

30 Mar 01 | New Media
Hitchhiker's Guide's game plan
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