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LONDON (Nov 8, 1996 1:48 p.m. EST) - Scientists searching for one of the fundamental keys to the universe found they had been beaten to the answer by the comic cult novel "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"; and the answer was 42. In the British novel and radio serial by Douglas Adams, an alien race programs a computer called Deep Thought to provide the ultimate answer to understanding life and the universe. In the novel, seven and a half million years later Deep Thought comes back with the result - 42. Astronomers at Britain's Cambridge University took a little less time - three years - to calculate the Hubble Constant that determines the age of the universe. But the answer was the same. "It caused quite a few laughs when we arrived at the figure 42, because we're all great fans of The Hitchhiker's Guide," Dr. Keith Grange, one of the team of Cambridge scientists who worked on the project, said Friday. "Everyone thought it was quite fun." The scientists were using a new technique to determine the value of the Hubble Constant, a source of constant controversy among astronomers. The Constant is a measure of the rate at which galaxies are receding from each other as a result of the Big Bang that created the universe. Knowing how quickly everything is flying apart can enable scientists to work out the universe's age. This has presented a problem, since the large Hubble Constant values estimated by some experts would mean that the universe is younger than its oldest stars. The Cambridge team put the age of the universe at between 14 and 16 billion years. Grange said the answer was unlikely to remain 42, however. The team plans to observe more galaxy clusters and take an average of a larger number of measurements. "After averaging out all these values we'll have a relatively accurate answer," he said. "It may be 42, but it could be anything between0 and 55."
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