The Physical Phenomenon of Dominoes

Many people love to play domino, a game of chance and skill where a player scores points by laying down one tile, edge-to-edge against another, so that the adjacent sides show a number or total. While the rules vary from game to game, the basic concept is always the same: the more dominoes are lined up in a chain, the more points a player can score. What most people may not know is that the physical phenomenon responsible for all those dominoes falling can also be used to make a spectacular artistic display. A domino artist named Hevesh creates elaborate arrangements of the pieces, lining them up to form unique shapes. She says one physical phenomenon is essential to her work: gravity.

Dominoes are rectangular, flat plastic or ceramic tiles bearing an arrangement of numbers or dots on one side and blank or identically patterned on the other. The dominoes are linked by a line or ridge running along the perimeter, which separates the two faces. Some sets have a full domino thickness in mother-of-pearl oyster shell (MOP), ivory or a dark hardwood such as ebony, with contrasting black or white pips inlaid or painted on each half. Other sets use a different material, such as stone; metals like brass or pewter; ceramic clay; or frosted glass. Most of these sets have the same general appearance as the polymer sets, but their materials lend them a more substantial feel and a higher cost.

Unlike a die, which has only six sides, most dominoes have twenty-four, and each end has an identical pattern of spots (or “pips”) in a circle or other configuration. Each pips corresponds to a specific value according to the rules of the game being played, and some dominoes have no pips at all. Dominos with no pips are often called double-blank or zero, though some games count them as 1.

When a domino is stood upright, it stores energy in its position against the force of gravity, which is why it takes so much energy to knock it over. As the domino falls, however, the stored energy turns into kinetic energy, and that kinetic energy is transferred to the adjacent dominoes, causing them to fall as well.

The first player to score the specified number of points wins the game, and in most cases that winner is awarded all the pips on opposing players’ exposed ends (though the numbers on some doubles are counted as either one or two; for example, a 6-6 counts as 12). A typical set includes 91 tiles, though larger sets with more pips have been manufactured: double-nine, double-12, double-15 and double-18.

When a player cannot place any more dominoes, he or she passes the turn to the next player. For this reason, the most popular game for four players is called the Block game; players take eight tiles each to start. Two players start with seven, three with five and four with four.