The Science of Dominoes


Domino is a game played by two or more people in which players take turns placing domino tiles on a special table. The first player to place all his or her tiles wins the game. A standard set of dominoes consists of twenty-eight rectangular tile squares, each displaying the number 1 through 8 on one side and white or black dots on the other. Some sets of dominoes have additional “extended” pieces with more than eight pips, but these are rarely used in games played with more than four players.

Each domino has a specific amount of energy associated with it, determined by its position on the table. The more a domino is standing upright, the more potential energy it has because it is lifting itself against gravity. When a domino falls, much of this potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, or the energy of motion, and some of that kinetic energy is transmitted to the next domino, pushing it over as well. This continues with each domino that falls, until all of the ones in a line have been pushed over.

The physicist Stephen Morris explains that each domino is a little like an electromagnet with potential energy and kinetic energy stored in magnetic fields around its sides. This energy is transferred as the domino slides over other dominoes or the ground, and friction between a domino and its surface also converts some of its potential energy into heat and sound. When the first domino reaches its tipping point, this friction can be just enough to cause it to fall and start the chain reaction that eventually topples the entire line.

Dominoes are also used to create art, often in the form of curved lines or grids that form pictures when they fall, stacked walls or 3D structures such as towers and pyramids. These creations are usually very complex, and the best artists can make thousands of individual dominoes stand perfectly in a row before they are knocked over. Many of these artists follow a version of the engineering-design process to build their mind-blowing designs. They start with a general theme or purpose, and then brainstorm images or words that might help them to visualize their work. They often film their creations in slow motion to identify and correct any issues that might occur.

Similarly, when we try to create new habits in our lives, it is important to keep the overall goal in mind and begin with small actions that will lead to larger ones over time. If we try to change too much at once, it can be difficult to maintain the momentum and a successful cascade of new behavior is unlikely. Think of each tiny domino in your life as a small commitment to something bigger that will eventually result in a shift in your identity and beliefs. This can be especially helpful when trying to break a habit that you find challenging to break.