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2001: A Space Odyssey | Study Guide

Arthur C. Clarke

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2001: A Space Odyssey | Context


The Space Race and the Cold War

After World War II the United States and the Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR) were the two dominant—and opposing—world powers. Tensions between the two nations were primarily ideological. The United States was certain that democracy, capitalism, and free speech were the traits of a superior culture. The Soviet Union came down on the side of communism and government control of both commerce and speech. This nonviolent rivalry and hostility between the ideologies of American democracy and Soviet communism was called the Cold War. One way this tension played out was the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which had been used by the United States to end World War II but were being developed by the USSR as well. Both sides knew that starting a nuclear war was potentially a recipe for human extinction. Yet each side was unwilling to fall behind in the stockpiling of these powerful weapons of mass destruction.

The Cold War played out in the realm of scientific investigation as well, particularly in the exploration of space. In a frenzy of innovation and ambitious experimentation, both countries fired off rockets. In October 1957 the Soviets were able to place into orbit the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. Americans, feeling the pressure, launched the satellite Explorer I the next year. Both countries were able to place a man in Earth's orbit over the next few years. But in 1960 President John F. Kennedy set the goal even higher. He vowed that America would put a man on the moon within the decade, and in 1969 the United States sent three astronauts to the moon, two of whom, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, walked on its surface.

Both the Cold War's worries over nuclear weapons and its obsession with the moon as a symbol of human exploration and progress are present in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the imagined future of the novel, the United States and the USSR have established a jointly owned space station, but there is still some tension and competition between the two countries. Clarke did not anticipate the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which took place at the end of 1991.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was a 19th-century naturalist best known for his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. This book changed the way people understood the development of living things. Darwin observed that species adapt to their surroundings. When a species has a survival advantage, it is more likely to reproduce, allowing its traits to be carried forward in time.

Human evolution is the driving force for the storytelling in Part 1 of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Moon-Watcher and the other man-apes have the potential for humanity inside them, in their genetic makeup, but they have not yet evolved to become human. From the fossil record, scientists have discovered that modern humans, or Homo sapiens, emerged in Africa no more than 200,000 years ago. Other species of early hominids, such as Australopithecus afarensis, existed in Africa more than three million years ago. These hominids were much more like apes than like their larger-brained descendants in the genus Homo, which first appeared in Africa about 1.4 to 2.4 million years ago. The milestone events described in Part 1—the development of language, tools, weapons, hunting, agriculture, and so on—are viewed as important developments in human evolution. For example, the first evidence that human ancestors used stone tools to butcher animals is from about 2.6 million years ago. The bone tools used in the novel would predate the development of stone tools.

Albert Einstein

Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity is another important scientific theory that informs the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1905 Albert Einstein published this theory, which asserts that energy is equal to mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light—best known by its mathematical equation, E=mc2. This means that mass and energy are intertwined. It also means that as an object's speed increases, it gains mass, and time moves more slowly for it. These conclusions were tested both mathematically and in physical experiments and were found to be correct.

Without Einstein's theory Clarke could not have imagined what happens to David Bowman when he enters the Star Gate. In the novel Bowman enters the Star Gate and is transported huge distances in space at unbelievable speeds, far faster than the speed of light. Using Einstein's prediction, Clarke describes how, as the pod moves at or beyond the speed of light, time itself slows:

The clock on the pod's small instrument panel was also behaving strangely. Normally, the numbers in the tenths-of-a-second window flickered past so quickly that it was almost impossible to read them; now they were appearing and disappearing at discrete intervals, and he could count them off one by one without difficulty. The seconds themselves were passing with incredible slowness, as if time itself were coming to a stop. At last, the tenth-of-a-second counter froze between 5 and 6.

So, in the novel, Clarke makes the point that not only are time and space vast—perhaps infinite—they are interconnected, just as Einstein's Theory of Relativity proposed.

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