The Wonder of Dominoes


Whether you’re a child lined up dominoes in a straight or curved line and flicking the first one, or an adult building mind-blowing domino art for a movie scene or even a music video, there’s something magical about watching those tiny blocks fall. It’s almost as if they’re reacting to each other, a chain reaction that begins with a little nudge and keeps going. But what exactly is it that makes these small blocks of wood and plastic so fascinating? Today’s WONDER asks a scientist to take us through the physics of the domino effect.

Lily Hevesh grew up with the classic 28-piece set of dominoes, and started collecting and building intricate domino sets at 9 years old. These days, Hevesh is a professional domino artist with a YouTube channel with more than 2 million subscribers. She has built amazing setups for movies, TV shows, and events, including a Domino’s pizza campaign and an album launch for Katy Perry. Hevesh’s art requires a lot of planning and precision, but the main force behind her setups is simple: gravity.

A domino is a small rectangular block, about half as long and wide as a playing card, with an identifying mark on one side and blank or slightly marked by dots resembling those on dice on the other. The marks, called pips or spots, vary in number from one to six (depending on the domino set), with most of the squares on a domino having two pips and the remainder having only one. The numbers indicate the value of the domino — a domino with more pips has a higher rank than a domino with fewer pips.

Standing up a domino gives it potential energy, or stored energy based on its position. But when you knock it over, much of that energy converts to kinetic energy – the energy of motion. Some of that energy is transmitted to the next domino, causing it to push down on its own and start the chain reaction. The rest of the energy is dissipated into heat and sound.

Besides friction, gravity is the other force that affects how a domino falls. When a domino is knocked over, it also experiences a magnetic force due to the polarization of its electrons. This can also cause it to move, but not as quickly or efficiently as a freely falling domino.

A domino is a fun and educational way to learn about the laws of physics and how objects interact with each other. It’s also a reminder to consider how a single action can have a big impact, or “domino,” on other people and situations. This is particularly important for writers, because no matter how carefully we plot our novels or how many details we write down in an outline, a domino effect can be devastating to the structure of a story. So think twice before you hit the ground running with your next plot point. Your readers will thank you for it!