How Do Dominoes Work?

Domino, also known as bones, cards or men, is a set of rectangular, flat, square, or round wooden blocks arranged on their ends in long lines to form a pattern. When the first domino is tipped ever so slightly, it causes the next one to tip and the others in the line to fall over in a cascade that can last for thousands of steps. These long chains of dominoes are a common sight in domino shows, where builders compete to create the most impressive and imaginative domino reactions or effects before a crowd of fans. Aside from being a fun way to pass the time, these chains of dominoes reveal an intriguing aspect of physical law.

As physicist Stephen Morris explains, each domino standing upright has potential energy, or stored energy based on its position. When it falls, most of that energy converts to kinetic energy, or energy of motion. The rest of that energy is transmitted to the domino that follows it, providing the push needed to knock it over. And so on, all the way to the final domino that falls.

The speed at which the chain of dominoes is able to travel down the line depends on its size and shape. Larger dominoes move faster because they have more surface area to transfer energy to the next domino. They also have the advantage of being able to bounce off the sides of other dominoes, adding to their momentum. This is the reason why larger dominoes are generally used in higher-stakes games than smaller ones.

Although modern domino sets are often made of polymer, older sets were frequently crafted from natural materials such as bone, silver lip ocean pearl oyster shell (mother-of-pearl) or ivory, with contrasting black or white pips inlaid or painted on the surface. These sets have a more aesthetically pleasing and tactile appeal, as well as being heavier in weight, and are often much more expensive than their polymer counterparts.

When designing and creating a mind-blowing domino setup, Hevesh uses a version of the engineering-design process. She starts by considering a theme or purpose and brainstorming images or words she might want to use in the installation. She then considers the layout of the dominoes and how they are positioned. This is important because it determines how the dominoes are able to be manipulated, and thus what kind of reaction can be achieved.

In order for the dominoes to be able to form an even flow, they need to be arranged in a way that gives each player four options on their turn. This can be accomplished by playing a tile adjacent to the first domino that is a double. If the tile is played so that it touches both sides of the double, then play passes to the other player. After the first doublet is played, a further four tiles must be placed so that they are crossed by the two matching ends of the domino.