The Total Perspective Vortex was a machine built with the intention of showing beings the infinity of creation, which became used as a method of torture. It first appeared in the Secondary Phase of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series, when Zaphod Beeblebrox was subjected to the vortex and became the first person to survive it.
The Vortex is a device that was built as a practical application of the theory of atomic interactivity. The idea is that, if every atom of the universe is affected by every other atom of the universe, then it is theoretically possible to extrapolate a model of the entire universe using any single piece of matter as a starting point. The Vortex does this employing a piece of fairy cake as its base of extrapolation.
The machine was originally created by its inventor Trin Tragula as a way to get back at his wife. She was always telling him to get a "sense of proportion," so he showed her the Vortex. Tragula was horrified to learn he had destroyed her mind, even as he proved his point that if life was going to live in such a vast Universe, one thing it could not afford to have was a sense of perspective.
The Vortex is now used as a torture and (in effect) killing device on the planet Frogstar B. The prospective victim of the TPV is placed within a small chamber wherein is displayed a model of the entire universe - together with a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot bearing the legend "you are here." The sense of perspective thereby conveyed destroys the victim's mind; it was stated that the TPV is the only known means of crushing a man's soul.
When Zaphod was exposed to the Vortex, he was inside a computer-generated universe created for his protection by Zarniwoop. Since the entire universe was created for him, the TPV told him, in effect, that he was, in fact, the single most important person in the universe. This allowed Zaphod to survive the experience, and also did not surprise him in the least. Zaphod then proceeded to eat the fairy cake.
Custodian of the Vortex
Gargravarr is a soul separated from his body from Frogstar C that works as the Custodian of the Total Perspective Vortex. When Zaphod survives the Vortex, Gargravarr tells him that he has to alert his masters but was willing to give Zaphod time to escape and hide first.
- The Total Perspective Vortex shares similar traits with the Point of View gun, which was a device created for the 2005 film The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The gun was commissioned by the Intergalactic Consortium of Angry Housewives, who wanted their husbands to see things from their point of view (or perspective).
- In the Quintessential Phase, the ideas behind the Total Perspective Vortex and the Guide Mark II are used to combine storylines from all of the radio episodes. This allows many of the plot lines from the divergent versions of the story to be wrapped up by the radio series' conclusion.
- An interactive example of a Total Perspective Vortex can be found at this site: Scale of the Universe1.
- The Total Perspective Vortex was referenced as the name of an achievement for the 2016 video game No Man's Sky, which uses procedural generation to deterministically produce a virtual universe containing 18 quintillion (1.8 x 1019) planets.
- In real life, astronauts and cosmonauts experience a version of this phenomenon when in orbit and after their space experiences known as the Overview Effect.