A pair of mathematicians didn't expect to get the so-called meaning of life—42, according to the sci-fi series "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"—when they solved a centuries-old math puzzle.
In the sci-fi series, a pair of programmers tasked the largest supercomputer in the galaxy to answer the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. After 7.5 million years of processing, the computer reached the final answer of 42. Only then did the programmers realized nobody knew the question the program was supposed to answer, Live Science says.
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Perhaps this math puzzle, which goes back to at least 1955 and was said to have been pondered by Greek thinkers as early as the third century AD, may just be that question. The problem—known as the Diophantine equation—goes, "How can you express every number between 1 and 100 as the sum of three cubes?" or algebraically, "how do you solve x^3 + y^3 + z^3 = k, where k equals any whole number from 1 to 100?"
According to Live Science, a similar problem was proposed about 1,800 years ago by ancient mathematician Diophantus of Alexandria. Those who revisited the puzzle in the 1950s quickly found solutions when k is equivalent to many of the smaller number, although stubborn integers soon emerged as the mathematicians solved through the problem.
|Photo Credit: Numberphile / University of Bristol (via Live Science)|
The two most difficult numbers, which still had an incomplete solution by the start of 2019, were 33 and—yes—42. Mathematician Andrew Booker crossed out 33 off the list when he found the solution for the number after several weeks of computing in April.
"Still, this exhaustive search turned up no solutions for 42, suggesting that, if there was an answer, some of the integers must be greater than 99 quadrillions," Live Science says. "Calculating values that large would take an insane amount of computing power."
This prompted Booker to seek the help of Andrew Sutherland, a mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sutherland helped Booker get some time with a worldwide computer known as the Charity Engine, which borrows the idle computing power from over 500,000 home PCs around the world.
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With the crowdsourced supercomputer and a million hours of processing time, the two mathematicians finally reached an answer to the Diophantine equation where k equals 42. So, the question and answer to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything is:
(-80538738812075974)^3 + (80435758145817515)^3 + (12602123297335631)^3 = 42