The Domino Effect


A domino is a small tile-like game piece that features an arrangement of spots or dots on one side and is blank or nearly blank on the other. A domino is normally twice as long as it is wide, and a typical set includes a total of fifty-two pieces, each with two ends marked differently, with the value of either end indicated by the number of pips that appear thereon. Most domino sets have six pips on each end; a domino with more pips has a higher rank than one with fewer pips, or with no pips at all.

The first domino to fall starts a chain reaction that causes the rest of the pieces to topple. This happens because each domino has potential energy, or stored energy based on its position on the table. As the first domino falls, much of this energy is converted to kinetic energy, or the energy of motion. Some of this energy is transferred to the next domino, providing a push that causes that domino to tumble as well. And so on, until the last domino falls.

Dominoes are used to play a variety of games, including matching, blocking, and scoring. Some are based on card games, while others may have been invented to circumvent religious prohibitions against cards or dice. Most domino games require skill, timing, and a strategic approach.

In addition to a purely recreational use, the word has many other meanings, ranging from a long hooded cloak worn with a mask at carnival season or a masquerade to a legal term for a judge’s decision. The term has also been used as a metaphor for a political situation in which one small event triggers a series of events with far-reaching effects, like the way that a single toppling domino can knock over other, larger ones. This is the concept behind the idiom domino effect, which originated with an editorial in The New York Times by journalist Will Alsop in 1953. President Eisenhower later cited the example at a press conference when asked about America’s role in Vietnam, and the phrase has been in wide use ever since.

To create one of her mind-blowing domino installations, Hevesh tests each section individually before putting it all together. She begins with 3-D sections, then moves on to flat arrangements, before finishing with lines of dominoes that connect all the segments.

Hevesh’s meticulous preparation is reminiscent of how the human brain processes information. When a nerve impulse travels down an axon, it requires energy to redistribute the ions and reestablish a resting state. And just like a domino, once that impulse is initiated it travels at a constant speed without loss of energy as it propagates down the axon. The exception would be a sudden removal of the domino, which stops the flow of energy completely. A missing domino is like a missing firing neuron.