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Foto: Benthem Crouwel Architects

How did Lab42 get its name?

Sija van den Beukel,
16 september 2022 - 11:38

Despite its short history, the new AI building was not always called Lab42. What names did it have before? And what does the number 42, taken from the British science fiction series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, have to do with it?

Every project needs a working title and so did the construction plans for the new AI building. Pauline Eenhoorn, head of the communications department of FNWI, remembers a meeting of the project team where this working title had to be chosen. "Someone suggested ASP 942: a combination of the address (house number 900) and the number 42. The latter number was already a reference to the answer to all questions. Then it was decided. It was nothing more than that."

Joost Vos

With the working title of "ASP 942," architect and partner Joost Vos of Benthem Crouwel Architects went to work. Along with five other architectural firms, he participated in the 2018 selection for a new building for FNWI at Science Park. He is not so much the creator of the name "Lab42" as he is the inspiration.


The architects at Benthem Crouwel found the term "lab" appropriate since in the new building there had to be a lot of collaboration and experimentation. ASP942 thus became LAB942. This is reflected in the first design drawings of the building.


The building might still be named that today were it not for the fact that the municipality did not want to give the new building the house number 942. After all, there is a kind of iron logic regarding addresses that is legally defined. And 942 did not fit into a logical sequential series. In searching for a new name, several options came up and someone called out "LAB42. Who that was, Vos doesn't remember. And LAB42 later emerged as the favorite in a vote.


But what about the number 42 which fell so casually in the meeting? "The number 42 is well known among information scientists: it is the answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe and everything," it says on the UvA website.


Most people probably know the science fiction series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, based on the famous radio and book series by Douglas Adams, from which the explanation of this number comes. (The rather ugly Dutch title is The Transgalactic Hitchhiker's Handbook.) In this series - a cult hit among scientists - 42 occurs as the answer to the "question about everything" calculated by the supercomputer Deep Thought.

The number 42 is used in the oddest of places as a hidden or overt reference to The Hitchhiker's Guide
Foto: Jannes Linders
Interior of Lab42.

Douglas Adams

As a mathematical illiterate and "beta blocker," the first reflex of our former Folia editor Altan Erdogan was to have a mathematician explain in great detail and accessible language what it was all about with that wonderful, all-solving number 42. That wasn't a good idea, because the reality behind bringing this number to life is much more prosaic than imagined. There is not that much to explain. Indeed, the author Douglas Adams had few deep thoughts when choosing 42.


After years of conjecture by the public and the creation of all sorts of theories by his readers and fans, he explained it in 1993. It was a joke, nothing more and nothing less. "I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought '42 will do' I typed it out. End of story."


Despite this sobering explanation, the number 42 has never gotten rid of the mythical aura that surrounds it. It is used in the oddest of places as a hidden or overt reference to The Hitchhiker's Guide in formulas, recipes, songs and names of pop bands (Level 42, for example).


And so now also for the new UvA building. Why exactly is not revealed in this story. Yet the reference - even more than to pop bands or nerdy theories about the future of the earth - to the series is logical. In all episodes, the sense and nonsense of science play a major role and the supercomputer Deep Thought must also have been hung up on artificial intelligence and algorithms - was that what it was called back then? - of artificial intelligence and algorithms.


The building was completed on time and within budget, which may be called a minor miracle. And now we wait to see what other big and small questions will be answered.


The meaning of the number 42 comes from an article that former editor-in-chief Altan Erdogan previously wrote for Folia. You can read his full article here.