Just like I said yesterday, today’s topic from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the Bistromathic drive. The fragment is taken from the third book in the series, Life, the Universe, and Everything – chapter 7.
Without further ado, here it is, read by Douglas Adams:
The Bistromathic Drive is a wonderful new method of crossing vast interstellar distances without all that dangerous mucking about with Improbability Factors.
Bistromathics itself is simply a revolutionary new way of understanding the behavior of numbers. Just as Einstein observed that time was not an absolute but depended on the observer’s movement in space, and that space was not an absolute, but depended on the observer’s movement in time, so it is now realized that numbers are not absolute, but depend on the observer’s movement in restaurants.
The first non-absolute number is the number of people for whom the table is reserved. This will vary during the course of the first three telephone calls to the restaurant, and then bear no apparent relation to the number of people who actually turn up, or to the number of people who subsequently join them after the show/match/party/gig, or to the number of people who leave when they see who else has turned up.
The second non-absolute number is the given time of arrival, which is now known to be one of those most bizarre of mathematical concepts, a recipriversexcluson, a number whose existence can only be defined as being anything other than itself. In other words, the given time of arrival is the one moment of time at which it is impossible that any member of the party will arrive. Recipriversexclusons now play a vital part in many branches of maths, including statistics and accountancy and also form the basic equations used to engineer the Somebody Else’s Problem field.
The third and most mysterious piece of non-absoluteness of all lies in the relationship between the number of items on the bill, the cost of each item, the number of people at the table, and what they are each prepared to pay for. (The number of people who have actually brought any money is only a sub-phenomenon in this field.)
The baffling discrepancies which used to occur at this point remained uninvestigated for centuries simply because no one took them seriously. They were at the time put down to such things as politeness, rudeness, meanness, flashness, tiredness, emotionality, or the lateness of the hour, and completely forgotten about on the following morning. They were never tested under laboratory conditions, of course, because they never occurred in laboratories – not in reputable laboratories at least.
And so it was only with the advent of pocket computers that the startling truth became finally apparent, and it was this:
Numbers written on restaurant bills within the confines of restaurants do not follow the same mathematical laws as numbers written on any other pieces of paper in any other parts of the Universe.
This single fact took the scientific world by storm. It completely revolutionized it. So many mathematical conferences got held in such good restaurants that many of the finest minds of a generation died of obesity and heart failure and the science of maths was put back by years.
Slowly, however, the implications of the idea began to be understood. To begin with it had been too stark, too crazy, too much what the man in the street would have said, “Oh yes, I could have told you that,” about. Then some phrases like “Interactive Subjectivity Frameworks” were invented, and everybody was able to relax and get on with it.
The small groups of monks who had taken up hanging around the major research institutes singing strange chants to the effect that the Universe was only a figment of its own imagination were eventually given a street theatre grant and went away.
In the book, the Bistromathic Drive is used in Slartibartfast‘s craft Starship Bistromath and works by exploiting the irrational mathematics that apply to numbers on a waiter’s cheque pad and groups of people in restaurants.Here are some more details on how to operate such a means of travel:
- The bridge instruments of the Starship Bistromath are ensconced in fake wine bottles.
- The central computational area is a fake Italian restaurant table with seating for twelve encased in a glass cage. The table is decked with a faded red and white check tablecloth with mathematically positioned cigarette burns. A group of robot customers sit round the table, attended by robot waiters.
- The mathematics play themselves out in the complex interplay between continuously circulating keys, menus, watches, cheque books, credit cards, bill pads and scribblings on paper napkins.
- “On a waiter’s bill pad,” explains Slartibartfast, “numbers dance. Reality and unreality collide on such a fundamental level that each becomes the other and anything is possible.”
- Should the ship’s captain sit at the table, the mathematical functions speed up; the customers become more vociferous and wave at each other. Eventually, the equation balances, and the customers become polite and civil once more. The more heated the argument, the more complex the equation, and the farther the ship may travel.
Tomorrow’s fragment will be related to what “that wholly remarkable book”, the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has to say about the Universe.