Dominoes Are More Powerful Than You Think

You’ve probably seen a domino construction in the movies or on TV: a long line of small square tiles all set up in careful sequence, then one teeny-tiny nudge and the whole thing topples into a gloriously rhythmic cascade. Dominoes are more powerful than we realize, as physics professor Stephen Morris shows in this video: Just a tiny nudge can take them past their center of gravity and into that tipping point. Then it’s just a matter of physics: gravity pulls on the weight and momentum of each domino, amplifying the effect until you end up with a giant chain that can knock over an object nearly two-and-a-half times its size.

The word domino (pronounced dom-i-no) has been around for centuries, and the game of domino has existed in many forms throughout history, too. The word is thought to come from the Latin for “little finger,” and in some early games, players simply used their fingers to set the little dominoes on the table in front of them. The etymology of the game itself is less clear, but scholars have suggested that it may have been inspired by the shape of the playing pieces—with a little finger, or fingernail, in each hand—and the black domino that contrasted with white surplices worn by priests in the 17th century.

In some games, the dominoes are arranged in a line that is called a layout, string, or line of play. Other games have the dominoes grouped in a circle that is called a set. The open ends of the dominoes in the set are numbered to identify them. Some dominoes have the numbers on only one side, while others are marked with a pattern of spots, or “pips,” that identifies them on both sides.

When a player plays a domino, the open end of the tile must touch an open end of another domino that is already in the line of play. When the line of play is complete, the players score based on the number of pips on the tiles that have been played. In some games, the number of pips in the set that are not played count as zero.

A player who cannot place a domino must “knock” or rap the table and pass play to his or her opponent. Some games have a rule that says the winning player is the first to finish the line of play, while others require both players to chip out.

When Hevesh sets up her dominoes, she often creates patterns that form pictures or walls. She also builds 3-D structures like towers and pyramids. Before each project, Hevesh starts by considering its theme or purpose. Next, she brainstorms ideas and makes a plan for how to arrange the dominoes. She might even draw on the tabletop to help her visualize the finished product.