When Douglas Adams was asked whether he invented this question because six times nine is actually 54, which is 42 when written in base thirteen, he replied: “I may be a sorry case, but I don't write jokes in base 13.”

This denial by Douglas Adams is well known among his fans, see eg. “How did Douglas Adams choose the Ultimate Question?” on Sci Fi SE.

On the other hand, a friend told me that Stanisław Lem, on the other hand, did write a joke that is based on a positional number system with an unusual radix (not necessarily 13), somewhere in the stories about Captain Pirx.

Is this true? Or, even if not all the details match, is there something close to this in Lem's writings that spawned this rumour? Where do I find the relevant part in the writings?

I've read all the stories about Captain Pirx, but I've read most of them only once or twice, and have probably missed this detail. I admit they're not my most favorite part of Lem's sci fi.

1 Answer 1


Yes… I don't get it.

It occurs in Pirx pilóta kalandjai (orig title. Opowieści o pilocie Pirxie; in Stanisław Lem teljes science-fiction univerzuma vol. 2, (2006) Szukits könyvkiadó, translator Murányi Beatrix), in the short story “Feltételes reflex”. The young student Pirx and the older scientist (astrophysicist) Langner are waiting in a hotel room on the moon, before traveling to the base at the back side of the moon.

Langner asks Pirx his age, without looking up from the complicated computations he was doing. Pirx replies “111”, which makes Langner look up, then adds “in binary”, which makes the scientist smile.

Langner kiterített az asztalon egypár új diagramot, és nagyítóval vizsgálgatta, olyan elmélyülten, ahogy Pirx még kedvenc színésznője képeit sem nézte soha. Közben megkérdezte Pirxtől, hány éves.

– Száztizenegy – felelte Pirx, és amikor társa felpillantott, hozzátette: – Kettes számrendszerben.

Langner most mosolyodott el először. Kezdett emberhez hasonlítani. Erős, fehér foga volt.

English translation (by Louis Iribarne) of that passage from Lem's novella "The Conditioned Reflex" as printed in the Avon Books edition of Tales of Pirx the Pilot:

Spreading out some new spectrograms on the table and studying them more intently than Pirx had had ever scrutinized his favorite pinup, Langner suddenly asked:

"How old are you?"

"A hundred and eleven," Pirx said, and added, when the other looked up, "in binary."

Langner broke out in a smile—his first—a smile that lent him an almost human look. He had strong, immaculately white teeth.

The numbers don't seem to make any sense. (Pirx is actually 22 years old at that time.) This appears to show that the young Pirx still says the first stupid thing that comes into his mind without thinking it through, which is in character for him. If there's a deeper meaning or joke behind the choice of these particular numbers, I can't see it.

  • 2
    Cool... I don't get it. Could you add a translation? Apr 2, 2017 at 21:07
  • 4
    Yes, please include an English translation of this passage, as per this meta policy. Without that, the vast majority of our users will be unable to judge your answer properly.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 2, 2017 at 22:12
  • 3
    Could you please at least provide the original text, and ideally an English translation? Citing a language that's neither the original nor understood by a majority of the readers is unhelpful. I presume the story is Odruch warunkowy (English translation: The Conditioned Reflex)? Apr 2, 2017 at 22:17
  • 1
    If he says he's 111 (going by Google), and he's 22, that's base 4?
    – muru
    Apr 3, 2017 at 1:56
  • 2
    It is indeed "111 in binary" in Polish original, Pirx should say "10110 in binary" or "112 in base 4". The original error has been fixed in some versions... but people insist that the error was intentional.
    – Yasskier
    Apr 9, 2017 at 23:55

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