The Physics of Dominoes

A domino is a small rectangular block of wood or plastic, bearing an arrangement of spots, like those on a die, on one side and blank or identically patterned on the other. It is used to play a number of games, the most famous being the game of twenty-one. Dominos also serve as a teaching aid in schools and kindergartens.

A single domino can tip a whole line of dominoes and initiate a chain reaction that continues down the line. When a domino is flipped over, it transfers its energy to the adjacent dominoes by converting it from potential energy to kinetic energy and then to heat, vibration, or electrical impulses.

Physicists have discovered the reason why this is possible: the physics of the domino effect. When a domino is stood upright against the force of gravity, it stores potential energy, like a rubber band springing to its full height. When the domino falls, most of this energy is converted to kinetic energy in a cascade of vibrations that cause domino after domino to fall over.

The speed at which a domino pulses down the line depends on the size of the triggering domino and the distance between it and the next domino, and is very much like the speed of a nerve impulse in your body. This is because a domino is an all-or-nothing event, just as a nerve impulse is an all-or-nothing signal that transmits its energy only in one direction, from the cell body to the end of the axon.

Dominos are used in a wide range of games, from scoring and blocking to drawing and matching. Some are even used to teach children numbers and basic math skills. In the world of competitive domino shows, builders build amazing sequences and reactions of hundreds of dominoes, all set up in careful, controlled sequence and then toppled by the nudge of only one.

When you’re writing a story, whether you plot out a detailed outline using tools like Scrivener or you’re a pantster who writes by the seat of your pants, a good understanding of the domino effect can help you keep your narrative on track. If a scene doesn’t build tension, advance the plot or make sense in the context of the scenes that came before it, it may need to be reworked or removed. Just as you might remove a domino that doesn’t fit into the layout of your board, you should remove any scene that doesn’t do what it needs to in your story.