When asked to produce The Ultimate Question, the computer says that it can't, but it can help design an even more powerful computer (the Earth) that can. The programmers then embark on a further, ultimately futile, ten-million-year program to discover The Ultimate Question, a process that is hindered after eight million years by the unexpected arrival on Earth of the Golgafrinchans and then ruined completely, five minutes before completion, when the Earth is destroyed by the Vogons, to make way for a new Hyperspace Bypass.
The author was presented with many readers' theories about The Ultimate Question and The Ultimate Answer in his lifetime, all of which he rebutted with his own somewhat apocryphal explanations.
Lacking a real question, the mice proposed to use "How many roads must a man walk down?" (from Bob Dylan's protest song "Blowin' in the Wind") as The Ultimate Question for the "5-D chat show and lecture circuit" (in their dimension). One of the pan-dimensional beings called Frankie Mouse admits:
In a 2005 article for the magazine TV Zone, Lance Parkin noted that Majikthise might have accidentally hit upon the Question the day Deep Thought was activated. "I mean, what's the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?" God's phone number is 42, although, as Parkin noted, knowing that is no use without the dialing code.
The referance to the number "42" can also be seen on the apartment door of Fox Mulder on the "X Files".
At the end of the first radio series (and television series, and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe book) Arthur Dent, having escaped the Earth's destruction, potentially has some of the computational matrix in his brain. He attempts to discover The Ultimate Question by extracting it from his brainwave patterns, as abusively suggested by Marvin the Paranoid Android, when a Scrabble-playing caveman spells out FORTY TWO. Arthur pulls random letters from a bag, but only gets the sentence "WHAT DO YOU GET IF YOU MULTIPLY SIX BY NINE?"
Arthur and Ford are simply forced to accept "What a Wonderful World" the Earth is.
This 'question' is impossible with a standard set of Scrabble, as it has only two Ys. In the TV series and book, the set has been handmade from Arthur's memory; in the radio series Arthur has a "pocket Scrabble set" at Milliways.
The program on the "Earth computer" should have run correctly, but the unexpected arrival of the Golgafrinchans on prehistoric Earth caused input errors into the system - computing (because of the garbage in, garbage out rule) the wrong question - the question in Arthur's subconscious being invalid all along.
Fenchurch had figured out the ultimate question in a small cafe in Rickmansworth just before Earth's destruction, but lost her memory of what it was in the universe where Earth survived.
The first two theories start the second novel (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe) and are confirmed at the close of the third (Life, the Universe and Everything) where Arthur encounters Prak (played on radio's The Tertiary Phase by the actor who was Arthur Dent in the 1 May to 9 May 1979 stage show"). A Krikkit-robot caused a massive overdose of a truth serum to be accidentally administered to Prak, who was then sworn to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" which he did unstoppably. Prak confirms that 42 is indeed The Ultimate Answer, and confirms that it is impossible for both The Ultimate Answer and The Ultimate Question to be known about in the same universe (compare the uncertainty principle) as they will cancel each other out and take the Universe with them to be replaced by something even more bizarre (as described in the first theory) and that it may have already happened (as described in the second).
Adams described his choice as
Despite this, there is evidence of other explanations.
Cleese needed a funny number for the punchline to a sketch involving a bank teller (himself) and a customer (Tim Brooke-Taylor). Adams believed that the number that Cleese came up with was 42 and he decided to use it.