From googol to Googleplex to babel fish to forty-two

Pretty weird title, huh? Except of course if you have listened to/read/watched The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (H2G2 for short) by Douglas Adams.

Google, the former search engine giant (now just “the giant”), claims that the name is a misspelling of googol, which is 10^100; and their campus Googleplex from googolplex, which is ten to the power of a googol, or 10^10^100. Both original terms, googol and googolplex were first coined in 1938 by a 9-year-old kid. (If you’re not sure about this fact or any other facts presented in this blog post, you can Just Google It.) Google was founded in 1998, but the usage of the word googleplex with that spelling (instead of googolplex) appeared in 1979 — way before Google was founded — as the name of a supercomputer, Googleplex Star Thinker, a minor character in H2G2. Considering Google was founded by Standard Nerds who quite likely has ever read the H2G2 trilogy (there are 6 books total), this is clearly a coincidence.

One of Google’s service available today is the Google Translate, which can translate words, sentences, pages between any of probably hundreds of languages that it supports. But way before Google Translate, in 2003 came Babel Fish, provided by AltaVista and later Yahoo! (which has abandoned it in favor of Bing Translator). Speaking of Babel Fish, where did it get its name? If you’ve been reading this post from the beginning you might have guessed that it comes from H2G2. Indeed:

The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.

To summarize: put a babel fish inside your ear, and you’ll understand any speech of any language as if it was spoken in your own language. Neat!

What’s this H2G2 anyway? It is a radio and television show, novel,  film — generally a series about a space-travelling researcher for a travel guide e-book from which the series got its name: The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. You read that right: a story about a researcher for an e-book, written in 1978. Where’s your Nostradamus now?

(From now on, I will use H2G2 to refer to the series and The Guide to refer to the fictional e-book.)

In the series, The Guide is published in the form of an electronic hand-held device. I know what you’re thinking: one device just for one book? I have an e-book reader that can store hundreds of books in just one device! This guy did not predict the future at all! You’re wrong. Indeed, the device contains just one book, but it is a book so massive “that if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitch hiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in.” It is not unexpected that one small device can only contain such small amount of data, considering it was 1978.

To use The Guide, you simply say the topic you want to see to the device. For example, say “Earth” and a description of the Earth will show up on the screen. Currently the description for Earth contains just one word: harmless, which is why a research is needed for a new edition of the book. The revised version has expanded the description for Earth a bit to mostly harmless.

So The Guide is electronic, it contains tons of informations provided by numerous researchers, and to find informations we pass queries to it. Sounds familiar? It’s like a hybrid of search engine and an encyclopedia. Wait, it’s just like the concept of… Wikipedia, just 23 years earlier! This cannot be true! Unless it is. In fact, 2 years before Wikipedia, Douglas Adams created h2g2 which is basically the same as Wikipedia. More info here.

Apparently two of the many giants, namely Google and Wikipedia, are very closely related to H2G2. I think I’ll just conclude that The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the most influential work to the Internet age. And I’m going to close this post with the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, which itself has influenced many more recent literatures and other media: forty-two.

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