The Science of Domino


Domino is a game of skill and strategy, as well as chance. There are many ways to play the game, but a player wins by scoring all of his or her dominoes in a line, touching one end of each to another, with the exposed ends totaling a multiple of five (i.e., six dominoes touch two dominoes, or six-five).

As the popularity of domino has grown, so too has the number of games that feature it. In recent years, domino has spawned an entire genre of entertainment called “domino shows,” where competitors compete to set up the most elaborate domino creations or reactions in front of a live audience.

The most common and popular dominoes are made of a polymer, usually plastic, that has been colored white or clear to show off the black dots on each side. More expensive sets are made from natural materials such as bone, silver lip ocean pearl oyster shell (mother of pearl), ivory, or a dark hardwood such as ebony, with contrasting black or white pips painted on each piece.

Regardless of the material, each domino has a certain amount of potential energy based on its position, or its starting point in a line. When a domino is knocked over, most of that energy is converted into kinetic energy—the energy of motion. Some of that kinetic energy is used to push on the next domino, and then the next, and so on.

Dominoes can also be stacked in 3-D configurations, to create structures that are taller than the human form. Hevesh has worked on team projects that involved more than 300,000 dominoes and helped to set a Guinness World Record for the most dominoes toppled in a circular arrangement—76,017 dominoes. She says that when constructing these larger installations, the most important rule is to always keep an eye on gravity.

Hevesh’s biggest projects require her to spend several nail-biting minutes waiting for them to fall, but she says that one physical phenomenon is key to getting the setups to work: gravity. The force that pulls a domino toward Earth can be overcome by a slight nudge from a neighboring domino, pushing it past its tipping point and setting off the chain reaction.

Hevesh’s most intricate works start out as flat arrangements, with each section of the design carefully tested before adding the next level. Those test pieces are also filmed in slow motion, so she can make precise corrections to the layout before putting it all together. She also makes test copies of her creations before putting them on the big stage, so she knows what to do when something doesn’t go exactly as planned. This kind of careful attention to detail is what a domino artist needs. It’s the same attention to detail that helps writers write. What do you think of this week’s Writing Tip? Tell us in the comments below!