“So Long, And Thanks for All the Fish” -Towel Day Celebrates Douglas Adams


There will never be another Douglas Adams. Although the actual date of Adams's death, of a heart attack at the age of 49, was 11 May, Towel Day is celebrated two weeks later on May 25, remaining faithful to the date of the first event, which was set up as a wake for fans soon after his sudden death. This year's event is the first since the widespread use of Twitter, and tweets by Adams's friends and followers, who count Stephen Fry and Neil Gaiman among their number, have spread awareness of the day. A website for the celebrations, towelday.org, is co-ordinating the events taking place across the world and urging fans to upload pictures of their towels to Flickr and YouTube and to tweet with the #towelday hashtag.

It has now been thirty plus years since October 12, 1979 when The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxynovelization of a popular British radio series, first saw print. Douglas Adams, our icon of humorous geek literature, would write four sequels to it, and would, tragically die of a heart attack at the age of 49.

In the first novel and radio series, a group of "hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings" in the form of mice demand to learn the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything from Deep Thought, the supercomputer, specially built for this purpose. It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42. Unfortunately, the Ultimate Question itself is unknown.

Towelday_towel When asked to produce The Ultimate Question, the computer says that it cannot; however, it can help to design an even more powerful computer that can -that computer is Earth. The programmers then embark on a further ten-million-year program to discover The Ultimate Question but the process is hindered after eight million years by the unexpected arrival on Earth of the Golgafrinchans and then is ruined completely, five minutes before completion, when the Earth is destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a new Hyperspace Bypass. This is later revealed to have been a trick by a consortium of psychiatrists, led by Gag Halfrunt, who feared for the loss of their careers when the meaning of life became known.

Lacking a real question, the mice decide not to go through the whole thing again and settle for  "How many roads must a man walk down?" from Bob Dylan's protest song "Blowin' in the Wind".

But WTF, Douglas Adams really did nail it! Once again, art anticipates science: after pondering the weighty question of the mass of the Milky Way galaxy, astronomers have come up with an answer: 42! Our galaxy weighs three times 10 to the power of 42 kilograms – a number written as 3 followed by 42 zeroes.

It seems esoteric but knowing the weight of the galaxy – the amount of matter it contains – is key to solving the nature of so-called dark matter. Unlike the "ordinary matter" of stars and planets, scientists have only hunches about the nature of the invisible material that, along with "dark energy", they estimate makes up 90-99 per cent of the universe.

What is it? How is it distributed across the universe? Does it really even exist? "That's worth knowing," said Professor Freeman,an astrophysicist with Mount Stromlo Observatory and the Australian National University's Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Canberra said  in an interview with The Australian. So along with colleagues in Australia, Europe, the US and Britain, he decided to "weigh" a galaxy.

The problem is there's no good way to quantify all the dark matter in distant galaxies, thus making it difficult to total all the matter, dark and ordinary. So Freeman and his colleagues focused on our home galaxy, the Milky Way, an average sized spiral galaxy, containing a few hundred billion stars (keep in mind that there are some 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, each containing more or less the same number of stars).

It has been determined that there is a roughly spherical halo of dark material stretching out to distances of perhaps 10 times as far from the center of the galaxy as we are. "Because we're inside our galaxy, we can get a more reliable measure of the dark matter content than we can for galaxies outside," he said.

To do so, the group first estimated the "escape velocity" of the galaxy – the speed stars passing near the sun needed to attain in order to escape its gravitational pull. It did so using the line-of-sight, or radial, velocity of stars crossing the central rotating disc of the galaxy.

The data was collected by the 1.2m Schmidt Telescope of the Anglo-Australian Observatory at Siding Spring, NSW. The escape velocity, calculated at between 544km/sec and 608km/sec, allowed the team to calculate the Milky Way's mass and weight, as well as the amount of dark matter: 94 per cent.

Wow…that's cool! We think Professor Freeman and team should be awarded the "Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster Prize for Extreme Cleverness."

Casey Kazan & team.


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