How Do Dominoes Work?


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The word domino, as it is used today, is a descendant of a French word that originally meant “long hooded cloak worn together with a mask.” It’s also possible to trace the term back to an even earlier sense: a garment resembling a priest’s surplice.

A domino is a flat thumbsized rectangular block the face of which is divided, like the faces of playing cards or dice, into squares bearing from one to six pips or dots: 28 such pieces form a complete set. The domino is the basic element of many games played by arranging these pieces on the table in lines and angular patterns. The simplest games involve matching the ends of adjacent pieces or placing additional tiles to create long chains of dominoes that fall over each other according to certain rules.

When a single domino is knocked over, it transfers energy to the next domino that touches it. The energy travels down the chain, eventually causing all of the dominoes to tumble, as shown in this video from the physics blog PhysLink. Inventor and domino artist Laura Hevesh, who’s designed several mind-blowing displays that have set records for the number of dominoes toppled, says that one physical phenomenon is essential to her work: gravity.

She explains that when a domino is standing upright, it stores potential energy in its mass and position, but once it falls, much of that energy converts to kinetic energy—the energy of motion. That energy then flows into the next domino that contacts it, and so on until the whole chain is over.

While Hevesh’s impressive designs often take hours or even days to complete, she explains that her process is similar to an engineer’s: First, she considers the purpose or theme of the installation. Then she brainstorms images or words that can be used to represent those ideas.

Finally, she outlines how the pieces will fit together and draws the layout. She also consults the game’s rules to determine how the various pieces will be arranged on the table. In most cases, a tile must be placed against a domino that has already been placed and must touch only one side of the existing tile. In addition, a double-blank must be positioned cross-ways so that it straddles the adjacent tile and can be touched by another tile on the opposite side.

The most common domino sets available are a set of double six and a set of double nine, although larger sets are available for more complex games and for players who want to build very long chains. Regardless of the size of the domino set, most games fall into two categories: blocking games and scoring games. Blocking games are played by placing a domino so that its ends are touching a matching piece of the same type, while scoring games are playable only when a chain of adjacent tiles exists.