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I've asked about it repeatedly on Wikipedia's talk page for the article about Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2001: A space odyssey, but had no reply (I have also mentioned it on the talk page for the french article, where at least someone chimed in, but it's even less likely to get a conclusive answer there). Is there a known inconsistency in the original text regarding the monolith's measurements, and the peculiar 1 : 4 : 9 ratio that they are supposed to match perfectly ?
I am french, I don't have access to the actual book in original english, but in all the electronic versions of the original I could find there's this sentence : “The monolith was 11 feet high, and 11/4 by 5 feet in cross-section.” Then it goes : “When its dimensions were checked with great care, they were found to be in the exact ratio 1 to 4 to 9.” And yet these measurements do not verify the 1 : 4 : 9 ratio at all ! They would approximately verify it with 11/9 instead of 11/4. The french translation is closer, surprisingly, although not nearly close enough, especially since it mistakenly adds that the measurements given in that sentence are “exact”, whereas only the ratio is said to be exact in the next sentence from the original (which makes sense, as the unit used for measuring lengths is arbitrary, based on historical choices which could have been different and couldn't have been anticipated even by the almighty extraterrestrial intelligence that designed the monolith — especially those weird units used in english speaking countries ! :^p —, whereas the ratio between dimensions is a purely mathematical notion which could indeed have some sort of universal significance).
The french text goes : “The monolith was indeed exactly 3 meters high, by 1.50 meters wide and 35 centimeters of thickness.” That's a ratio of 1.05 : 4.50 : 9.
So, is this a factual error in the novel, or an OCR / transcript mistake ?

As a side note, the english Wikipedia article mentions another inconsistency regarding the monolith(s), but between the novel and the movie : “While it is stated in the book that the ratio of the dimensions of the monolith are supposed to be 1 : 4 : 9 (1² : 2² : 3²), the shape of the actual monolith seen in the movie does not conform to this ratio. A ratio of 1 : 4 : 9 would produce an object that appears thick, wide, and squat. Kubrick wanted something taller and thinner, which he felt would be more imposing. Measurements taken from movie frames show that the movie monolith has dimensions approximately in the ratio 0.65 : 4 : 9 or 1 : 6 : 14.”
That paragraph was flagged as “original research” ; is there a consensus on that matter, and are there quality sources which could properly back up that assertion ?

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    In what chapter does the sentence giving the monolith's measurements appear? I'd like to check this in my copy myself.
    – jwodder
    Feb 22, 2021 at 2:58
  • May be of interest- There is a theory that the movie monolith was altered to be closer to a film screen aspect ratio and the monolith being a symbol for film imagery. See Meaning of the Monolith youtu.be/MSo6s_xrj4c Feb 22, 2021 at 3:16
  • @jwodder It's in chapter 31, “Survival”. Right after HAL has been disconnected and David Bowman heard the message revealing the true nature of the mission.
    – GabrielB
    Feb 22, 2021 at 3:30
  • I expect that's supposed to be 1 1/4 (i.e. 5/4 or 1.25). 1.25 * 4 = 5; 1.25 * 9 = 11.25.
    – DavidW
    Feb 22, 2021 at 4:06
  • @DavidW Indeed, in the mean time I had the confirmation that it was (most likely) an uncorrected OCR error, someone below quoted from the original edition, and I found a PDF version with the same 1¼ value. I made this calculation, which makes the discrepancy less obvious : 5 * 9/11 = 4.09 ; 1.25 * 9/11 = 1.02 ; 11 * 9/11 = 9.
    – GabrielB
    Feb 22, 2021 at 5:07

1 Answer 1

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The passage in question in my 1968 first printing of the novel reads:

The monolith was 11 feet high, and 1¼ by 5 feet in cross-section. When its dimensions were checked with great care, they were found to be in the exact ratio 1 to 4 to 9—the squares of the first three integers.

Note that the depth of the monolith is one and one-quarter, not eleven quarters. These measurements aren't in an exact 1:4:9 ratio either, with the height only being one quarter of a foot away from a perfect match. I suspect the measurements given in the text are meant to be approximations and not the dimensions that one would find when checking them "with great care."

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    The odds that ancient aliens would produce an artifact measuring an even number of any imperial unit in any dimension, is approximately the same as it having an even metric measurement.
    – DavidW
    Feb 22, 2021 at 4:17
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    Semantically, this indeed reads like the numbers are not the "great care" measurements, but rather a spitball, and then a mention of subsequent "great care" measurements (not specified numerically). However, it's counterintuitive that the spitball is at least to within ¼ foot precise on the width, yet lacks the same ¼ foot precision on the height, which suggests a varying degree of accuracy, which leads to questioning the narrator's accuracy on describing whether something is a perfect ratio.
    – Flater
    Feb 22, 2021 at 13:02
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    @Flater Perhaps all measurements were made and reported to the nearest ¼ foot, and both the height and the width happened to be closer to a whole number of feet than to any other quarter-foot number. Feb 22, 2021 at 13:51
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    @Flater Not if it's embedded in sand or the base is covered in millions of years of dust.
    – pipe
    Feb 22, 2021 at 14:55
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    @Flater 16/13, 64/13 and 144/13 feet have the exact ratios and differ from the spitballs by only up to 1/13 foot (they're off by -0.25/13, -1/13 and +1/13 feet, respectively). Feb 22, 2021 at 17:19

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