February 20, 2018

The Douglas Adams Galaxy

On this day in 2001 Douglas Adams died of a heart attack in a Santa Barbara gym, aged forty-nine. He had moved to California to be more involved in negotiations with Hollywood producers on the movie version of his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a frustrating process which Adams likened to "trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it." The 1979 book and its sequels (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe and Everything; So Long and Thanks for all the Fish; Mostly Harmless) have sold fifteen million copies, and the Dirk Gently books (Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul) have also done well, but Adams said that he was proudest of Last Chance to See, a documentary account of his expeditions with zoologist Mark Carwardine to observe a handful of near-extinct animal species. The message is dire but the writing is entertaining, as in this account of animal life at one Tourist-Trap-at-the-End-of-the-Universe in Bali, encountered while stalking the Komodo dragon:
    ...The kamikaze motorcyclists tried to pick off the tourists and small dogs, while the tiny minibus, which spent most of the evening in shuttling our bags from one full hotel to another, hurtled through the motorcyclists and counterfeit-watch sellers at video-game speeds. Somewhere not too far from here, toward the middle of the island, there may have been heaven on earth, but hell had certainly set up business on its porch.
    The tourists with their cans of lager and their FUCK OFF T-shirts were particularly familiar to anyone who has seen the English at play in Spain or Greece....
After an aside on convergent evolution -- in which Adams links, on the basis of their elongated, up-yours, middle finger, Madagascar's aye-aye lemur, a possum special to New Guinea, and gift-shop owners everywhere -- we listen in on expeditionary plans to make a treacherous, twenty-two mile ocean crossing with a dead goat. Adams's role in this skit is best read with the knowledge that he grew up wanting to be John Cleese:
    "...This is where the South China Sea meets the Indian Ocean, and it's riddled with crosscurrents, riptides, and whirlpools. It's very dangerous and could take anything up to twenty hours."
    "With a goat?" I asked.
    "A dead goat."
    I toyed with my food.
    "It's best," continued Mark, "if the goat has been dead for about three days, so it's got a good smell going. That's more likely to attract dragons."
    "You're proposing twenty hours on a boat -- "
    "A small boat," added Mark.
    "On violently heaving seas -- "
    "With a three-day-old dead goat."
    "I hardly know what to say. . . ."
Oxford academic and well-known science author Professor Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) gave the first "DNA Memorial Lecture" on March 11, 2003, what would have been Adams's fifty-first birthday. (The DNA joke was one of Adams's favorites: his middle name was Noel, and he liked to say that he was born in Cambridge nine months before Crick and Watson made their double-helix discovery.) Dawkins based his lecture on a quote from J. B. S. Haldane, the renowned geneticist, biologist, and popularizer of science: "Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we CAN suppose." Dawkins and Adams were good friends -- good enough, one supposes, that Dawkins made Adams the one exception to Haldane's rule.

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