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The Science Of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Michael Hanlon

01/07/2005. Contributed by Rod MacDonald

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pub: Macmillan. 195 page hardback. Price: 16.99 (UK), 4.95 (US). ISBN: 1-4039-4577-2.

check out website: www.panmacmillan.com and www.macmillanscience.com


To my mind, there isn't a great deal of science to popular Science Fiction these days. 'Star Wars 3', for example, depicted a fight taking place on hover sledges above a river of molten rock which, despite being exciting, was nonetheless an impossible scenario because the air temperature for anyone that close to 1000C lava would be sufficiently high to rapidly toast them.

We've had books about the science behind 'Star Trek' and all its paraphernalia and now the science of 'Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy'. Is this really necessary?



'Hitchhiker's Guide' didn't strike me as being a book you could analyse for its scientific content and I doubt if Douglas Adams had science in mind when he wrote it. For example, arguing about mice being the true owners of Earth, along with Slarti's fiords, seems a rather pointless exercise and I wondered if Michael Hanlon was jumping on a bandwagon attached to the latest 'Hitchhiker' movie.

Well, even if this is the case, he has produced a very good book. He has a style which is readable, concise and easy flowing all at the same time and employs this to produce entertaining and scientifically accurate materiel. There's no pseudo-science here. No mumbo jumbo neither. You won't need to be a science graduate to understand the content but by the time you've read through what he has to say, maybe you'll think you are one.

Hanlon already has books on the market about Jupiter's satellites and the planet Mars. He has also appeared on television, radio and in many magazines discussing scientific material. He may not be as well known as some other science writers of the day but I'd suggest that he is one of the best and if he continues writing in his informed and competent manner, then it won't be long before he's as popular as Hawking or Dawkins.

OK, that's enough of the good things about the book! If you are a Hitchhiker fan then prepare for disappointment because Hanlon appears to do nothing more than allude to the actual book/film/series in a fleeting way. The fourteen chapters all hang on hooks derived from 'Hitchhiker's Guide' but that's about it. Don't go looking for an in-depth analysis of Marvin's mood or Zaphod's two heads and don't expect the other characters to be jumping out at you from every page.

A crucial incident to the entire story is Arthur and Ford's teleportation off Earth before it is destroyed to make a bypass. The science behind 'Hitchhiker's and also 'Star Trek's transporters is discussed with the end view that it's not really feasible and even if it were you wouldn't do it. I think the problem is stuck in a 'Star Trek' void. Who says we have to disassemble a person, transport them in an energy beam and then reassemble all the atoms in exactly the same way in order to travel from one point to another?

Philosophical questions arise from this method. Is the person destroyed in the transporter? Does a copy emerge from the other end? Why not just make a copy somewhere else then shoot yourself? The entire idea is ludicrous and becomes bogged down in paradox. The only way I can envisage to enable virtually instantaneous transport over large distances without all these problems would be to send the being, intact and without disassembly, through a manufactured warp in space. Trouble is, this would take an absolutely huge quantity of energy and the act would probably have a disturbing effect on the environment.

'The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe' was a joke. There's no science behind it at all but Hanlon describes what will likely happen to the Earth and the universe as time goes on, first with the death of the sun and then with the ever expanding (or not) fabric of space/time. We've probably read about this before but he does make a good job of his effort to enlighten his readers.

This is a book which you'll probably manage to digest within a day or two and that will be all right because, just like the dish of the day at the restaurant, it has been engineered to make it palatable. Lots of interesting points emerge. Many unanswered scientific and philosophical questions arise. Really, if truth be told, it could have been written without any reference to 'Hitchhiker's Guide' at all but then it would be swimming about with all the other popular science volumes and wouldn't be making the same amount of money.

Rod MacDonald

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