Monolith (Space Odyssey)

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ENS 2001 Monolith below.jpg
A replica monolith prop at École Normale Supérieure in Paris, 2020
Plot element from the Space Odyssey series of prose fiction
PublisherStanley Kubrick Productions
First appearance
Created byStanley Kubrick
Arthur C. Clarke
GenreScience fiction
In-story information
FunctionDeals with themes of existentialism, human evolution, technology, artificial intelligence, and possibly extraterrestrial life

In Arthur C. Clarke's Space Odyssey, Monoliths are machines built by an unseen extraterrestrial species. In the series of novels (and the films based on these), three Monoliths are discovered in the Solar System by hominids and humans. The response of the characters to their discovery drives the plot of the series. It also influences the fictional history of the series, particularly by encouraging humankind to progress with technological development and space travel.

The first Monolith appears at the beginning of the story, set in prehistoric times. It is discovered by a group of hominids and somehow triggers a considerable shift in evolution, starting with the ability to use tools and weaponry. It is later revealed that thousands of other monoliths exist elsewhere in the Solar System.


The extraterrestrial species that built the Monoliths is never described in much detail, but some knowledge of its existence is given to Dave Bowman after he is transported by the stargate to the "cosmic zoo", as detailed in the 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey and its 1982 sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two. The existence of this species is only hypothesized by the rest of humanity, but it is obvious because the Monolith was immediately identified as an artifact of non-human origin.

The extraterrestrial species that built the Monoliths developed intergalactic travel millions or perhaps billions of years before the present time. In the novels, Clarke refers to them as the "Firstborn" (not to be confused with the identically-named race in Arthur C. Clarke's and Stephen Baxter's Time Odyssey series) since they were quite possibly the first sapient species to possess a significant capability of interstellar travel. Members of this species explored the universe in the search of knowledge, especially knowledge about other intelligent species.

While these early explorers discovered that life was quite common, they observed that intelligent life was often stunted in its development, or else died out prematurely. Hence, they set about fostering it. The Firstborn were in many ways physically different from human beings, though from another point of view they were fundamentally the same: they were creatures made of "flesh and blood", and hence, like human beings, they were mortal.

However, the evolutionary development projects they began would by their nature require very long time spans to complete, far longer than the lifetimes of their creators. Therefore, the aliens created increasingly complex automated machines to oversee and carry out their projects over the eons. When they encountered a living world that had features in favor of the evolution of intelligent life, they left behind the Monoliths as remote observers that were also capable of taking a variety of actions according to the wishes of their creators. One such planet, encountered when it was still quite young, was Earth. They also observed Jupiter and its watery moon, Europa. The decaying ecology of Mars was also visited, but passed over in favor of more fruitful locations like Earth. The aliens left behind three Monoliths to observe and enact their plan to encourage humans to pursue technology and space travel.

As described in Clarke's novel, the Firstborn discovered later how to transfer their consciousness onto computers, and thus they became thinking machines. In the end, they surpassed even this achievement, and were able to transfer entirely from physical to non-corporeal forms—the "Lords of the Galaxy"—omniscient, immortal, and capable of travelling at great speeds. The Firstborn had abandoned physical form, but their creations, the Monoliths, remained, and these continued to carry out their original assignments.

Tycho Magnetic Anomalies[edit]

The term "Tycho Magnetic Anomaly" is something of a misnomer when referring to "TMA-0" and "TMA-2", since neither of these is found on the Moon (let alone in Tycho Crater) and neither one of them emits any significant magnetic field, as described in the novel 2010: Odyssey Two (the characters in some of the novels refer to this anomalous nomenclature quizzically). In the novel, the Russian crewmen of the spaceship Alexei Leonov refer to TMA-2 as "Zagadka" (from the Russian word for "enigma", "mystery", or "riddle").

Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-1[edit]

The name Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-1 (also known as TMA-1) refers to the strong magnetic field found somewhere in the lunar Crater Tycho by an American scientific satellite. Astronauts find that this magnetic anomaly is caused by an alien Monolith buried about 15 meters below the surface. In the novel, when the Monolith is excavated and examined, it is found to be a black cuboid whose sides extend in the precise ratio of 1 : 4 : 9 (1² : 2² : 3²) and is sitting on a platform of the same material above undisturbed rock. Clarke suggests that this sequence or ratio extends past the three known spatial dimensions into much higher dimensions.

TMA-1 was dug up during the lunar night, but after sunrise and its exposure to direct sunlight, TMA-1 emits a single powerful burst of radio waves – aimed at Iapetus (a moon of Saturn) in the novel, and aimed at Jupiter in the motion picture. Its powerful magnetic field disappears immediately. In the novel, some scientists speculate that its magnetic field came from large electric currents, circulating in a system of superconductors for millions of years as an energy-storage mechanism. All of that electric power was expended in the one radio signal.

Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-2[edit]

An identical (except in size) object was found later, orbiting Jupiter (on a moon of Saturn in the book, although this was changed to Jupiter in the sequel book, 2010: Odyssey Two). This object was dubbed "TMA-2", a term that the book calls "doubly inappropriate": it had no magnetic field, and was millions of miles from Tycho (TMA-2 was often referred to as "Big Brother" due to David Bowman's comments on its immense size). In 3001: The Final Odyssey, HAL and Bowman destroy TMA-2 with a computer virus after it is learned that its superiors are sending an order to destroy humanity.

Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-0[edit]

In the year 2513, the first Monolith to be encountered by humankind's prehistoric evolutionary predecessors (the ones featured in the first novel) was found in Olduvai Gorge, buried in ancient rock, and was retroactively dubbed "TMA-0".

Other Monoliths[edit]

Other than the Monoliths bearing TMA labels, there are many other Monoliths that are seen in the series. In two instances, millions of Monoliths are generated for a limited time purpose. The first, in 2010: Odyssey Two, Monoliths are generated to transform Jupiter into a star, subsequently named Lucifer. The second, in 3001: The Final Odyssey, are generated to block both the Earth and human-settled Ganymede from their primary star in an attempt to destroy the humans.

The Great Wall[edit]

A large Monolith standing on its side on Europa is confirmed in 2061, though its existence is first implied in the second book. It is nicknamed the Great Wall after the Great Wall of China, due to its horizontal orientation. It is believed to be watching over the Europans in a manner similar to TMA-0 in the first book. Halman mentions that it was damaged by the impact of Mount Zeus, which is discovered to be a single vast diamond, a shard from Jupiter's core that struck Europa's surface some time following Jupiter's transformation.


A small Monolith appears before Heywood Floyd in 2061 on board the Galaxy spacecraft. He nicknames it "Minilith" for its small size compared to other observed Monoliths. At the end of the book it is explained that Halman used the Minilith to replicate Heywood Floyd's consciousness to help him uncover the Monolith's operations.

Appearance and capabilities[edit]

In the movies, all the Monoliths are black, extremely flat, non-reflective rectangular solids. In the first novel, the monolith on the African savannah was transparent and "it was not easy to see except when the morning sun glinted on its edges", but became less transparent when active and was described as a crystal. Also, the final monolith is described as a transparent crystal that becomes less transparent when active.

In the novels (not in the films), the dimensions of the monoliths are in the precise ratio of 1 : 4 : 9 (the squares of the first three positive integers). These dimensions are the main source of debate about the simple external design of the Monoliths. It is suggested in the 2001 novel that this number series does not stop at three dimensions.[1]

The Monoliths come in several different sizes: TMA-0 and TMA-1 are both about 11 feet long and TMA-2 is two kilometres long on its longest axis, whereas the Monolith on Europa is considerably larger. They may be able to assume any size, because in 2010: Odyssey Two, the Star Child, created from the astronaut Dave Bowman, cryptically notes that the Monolith is actually one size – "as large as necessary".

The Monoliths are extremely long-lived and reliable machines, able to survive for millions of years buried in the ground or resisting meteorite impacts and radiation in space with no apparent damage. The two Monoliths recovered and examined by humans are virtually indestructible and impenetrable, resisting all attempts to analyse their composition or internal structure right up to the end of the series. Dr. Heywood Floyd proposes they have some sort of force shield, an impression he gets from touching it; this hypothesis is later accepted as probable because the Monoliths resist destructive testing beyond the theoretical limits of material strength. However, they are not completely indestructible: TMA-4 has suffered from damage caused by a giant meteorite of solid diamond that collided with Europa in 2061: Odyssey Three. In the final book, 3001: The Final Odyssey, all three Monoliths known to humankind are deactivated by being infected with a powerful computer virus.

While it is unclear what the composition of the Monoliths is, they clearly have mass, which is about the only observation that can be made. In the novel 2010, the crewmen of the spaceship Alexei Leonov measure the mass of TMA-2 and find that it has a density slightly higher than that of air. The masses of TMA-0 and TMA-1 are never revealed by Clarke.

In 2001, TMA-2 opens up a stargate that takes Dave Bowman on a trip across the universe at faster-than-light speeds, and with as much acceleration as the creators of the stargate wish. In 2010 and again in 3001, TMA-2 teleports itself.

TMA-2 replicates itself by a form of symmetrical binary fission and exponential growth to create thousands or millions of identical Monoliths in just a matter of days. In 2010, the many units act to increase the density of Jupiter until stellar ignition is carried out, converting the planet into a miniature star. In 3001, millions of copies of TMA-2 assemble themselves into two megastructure disks that attempt to block the Sun from Earth and from its colonies in the Jovian system.

The Monoliths are clearly described in the novels as controlled by an internal computer, like Von Neumann machines. In 2061, the consciousness of Dave Bowman, HAL-9000, and Dr. Floyd become incorporated as computer programs in TMA-2 as their new home. TMA-2 then observes the development of the Europans and guards them from any interplanetary (i.e. human) interference.

Both TMA-1 and TMA-2 produce occasional, powerful, directional radio transmissions. TMA-2 sends a radio transmission towards a star system about 450 light years away in the 22nd century. However, only TMA-1 ever exhibited any strong magnetic fields.


The TMA-2 Monolith had judged that it would be desirable to nurture the primitive Europans by preventing the eventual freezing of their moon, and to keep humanity separated from them. TMA-2 thus converted Jupiter into a new star (dubbed "Lucifer", meaning "light-bringer") to warm Europa into more habitable conditions – at the cost of exterminating the Jovians, ocean-like creatures who swam through the upper atmosphere of Jupiter. The Jovians were judged too primitive, as due to their environment they had no hope of ever developing to become an advanced civilization.

TMA-2 also apparently decided, in the early 21st century, that humanity was a failed species and that it was possibly necessary to destroy them. Apparently the TMA-2 Monolith was allowed to destroy primitive species at its own discretion, but needed the authorisation of a "superior" to destroy an advanced spaceflight-capable civilisation such as humanity. This "superior" was a Monolith located in a distant star system, but even the Monoliths were limited by the speed of light in their interstellar communications. Thus it took 450 years for the message sent by TMA-2 to reach its "superior", which then sent a message giving permission to destroy humanity, which took another 450 years to return to the Sol system in the year 3001. Due to the efforts of Frank Poole and the Europa team on Earth, the ascended Dave Bowman and AI HAL (now fused as one being "Halman" in the Monolith's computational matrix) were able to introduce a subtle computer virus into TMA-2 which destroyed it before it could render the human race extinct.

The Firstborn did not appear to have abandoned all interest in the evolutionary experiments overseen by the ancient Monoliths. The Monoliths' communications are said to be limited by the speed of light, but Dave Bowman is sent on an interstellar journey at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Bowman is apparently transformed into the Star Child, not by the Monoliths, but by the Firstborn (both Kubrick and Clarke have similarly stated that Bowman was transformed by non-corporeal aliens, not the Monoliths). They also subsequently transform HAL in 2010, to give Bowman a companion. The epilogue to 3001: The Final Odyssey reveals that the Firstborn had been monitoring humanity's final confrontation with the Monoliths in the Sol system, but chose not to intervene. Unlike the TMA-2 Monolith, whose judgment of humanity was based on its social progress by the year 2001, the Firstborn considered the more peaceful and responsible humanity of the year 3001 worthy of survival, or at least not a threat to the Europans. Their assessment seems to prove true, as subsequently Frank Poole and the other humans land on Europa and attempt to start peaceful relations with the primitive native Europans.


The first design for the Monolith for the 2001 film was a tetrahedral pyramid. This was taken from the 1951 short story "The Sentinel" that the first story was based on.[2][3] A London firm was approached to provide a 12-foot (3.7 m) plexiglass pyramid, and due to construction constraints they recommended a flat slab shape. Kubrick approved, but was disappointed with the glassy appearance of the prop on set, leading art director Anthony Masters to suggest making the monolith black.[4]


Monolith replica at HAL 2001

Replicas have been displayed in some places as a tribute to the movie.

During the Dutch hacker conference HAL, a replica of the monolith was erected.

Monolith replica at ENS in 2020

In June 2020, a 4.5 meters tall wood-made replica was found in the main courtyard of ENS.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Clarke A (1968). 2001: A Space Odyssey, Signet. "How obvious—how necessary—was that mathematical ratio of its sides, the quadratic sequence 1:4:9! And how naive to have imagined that the series ended at this point, in only three dimensions!"
  2. ^ Kolker, Robert (23 March 2006). Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey: New Essays. ISBN 9780199724369.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Benson, Michael (2018). Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781501163951. Retrieved 31 August 2018.