The Domino Effect

When the first domino falls, it sets off a chain reaction that eventually brings down all of them. That’s why the phrase “domino effect” describes a series of events that begins with one simple act, but has much larger—and sometimes catastrophic—consequences. The phenomenon is also a common metaphor for business, with many managers using it to explain how a small change can have large consequences.

Dominoes are small, flat blocks that can be stacked on end in long lines. When a domino is tipped, the rest of them follow suit, tipping over and pushing on each other until they all fall. Very complex designs can be made by stacking dominoes in this way, including straight and curved lines, grids that form pictures when they fall, stacked walls, or 3D structures such as towers and pyramids. Children and adults love to use dominoes for these activities, but they’re also useful in teaching about basic physics principles.

Physicist Stephen Morris says that when a domino is standing upright, it has potential energy, or stored energy based on its position. When a domino falls, most of that potential energy converts to kinetic energy, or the energy of motion. Some of this energy is transmitted to the next domino, providing the push needed to knock it over. This continues with each new domino, until the whole line falls.

The word domino appears to have been coined in France, and the game itself probably developed from earlier games in Italy and France that used a similar system of stacking domino pieces on end to form a line with matching pips (small dots). Some European-style sets still feature a combination of materials, with the top half thickness in silver lip ocean pearl oyster shell (mother of pearl, MOP), ivory, or a dark hardwood such as ebony, and the lower half in contrasting black.

MOP and ivory are more expensive than other types of dominoes, but both are made from natural products, which gives them a more elegant look and feel than the cheaper polymer materials used to make most modern sets. In addition, MOP and ivory are harder than other materials, which can make a domino set feel more substantial in the hand.

When MOP and ivory are used together, the dominoes can even have a three-dimensional appearance. Some people enjoy using dominoes to create art, and you can find some incredible examples on YouTube. Domino artist Lily Hevesh started playing with dominoes when she was 9, and soon she was creating elaborate setups. Her videos have millions of views, and her hobby has turned into a full-time career. Hevesh follows a version of the engineering-design process when she creates her mind-blowing domino installations. She makes test versions of each section of an installation, and then films them in slow motion to make precise corrections if necessary. She builds the biggest 3-D sections of her designs first, then adds the lines of dominoes that connect them all together.