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NGSS: Core Idea: PS2.A

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TEKS: 6.2B, 6.8A, 6.8C, 7.2B, 8.2B, P.4B

Domino Designer

An artist uses physics to create amazing domino displays

COURTESY OF LILY HEVESH/HEVESH5

RAINBOW SPIRAL: Lily Hevesh built this 15-color spiral in 2017 using 12,000 dominoes.

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: What forces affect how dominoes fall?

Lily Hevesh started playing with dominoes when she was about 9 years old. “My grandparents had the classic 28-pack,” she says. Hevesh loved setting up the dominoes in a straight or curved line, flicking the first one, and then watching the whole line fall, one domino after another.

Soon she began searching online for videos of more elaborate domino displays. “I found people building incredible structures, spelling out words, and even making portraits,” she says. “It blew my mind that anyone could do these amazing tricks if they spent the time and effort to set them up.”

By age 10, Hevesh’s domino collection had grown much larger, and she’d started posting videos of her own domino projects online. Now, at 20, she’s a professional domino artist. Her YouTube channel, Hevesh5, has more than 2 million subscribers. She creates spectacular domino setups for movies, TV shows, and events—including an album launch for pop star Katy Perry.

Hevesh has worked on team projects involving 300,000 dominoes, and she helped set a Guinness World Record for the most dominoes toppled in a circular arrangement: 76,017. Her largest installations take several nail-biting minutes to fall. But once Hevesh creates her intricate displays, all she has to do is let them tumble according to the laws of physics.

Lily Hevesh started playing with dominoes when she was about 9 years old. “My grandparents had the classic 28-pack,” she says. Hevesh loved the game. She set up the dominoes in a straight or curved line and flicked the first one. Then she watched the whole line fall, one domino after another.

Soon she wanted to find more difficult domino displays. She began searching online for videos. “I found people building incredible structures, spelling out words, and even making portraits,” she says. “It blew my mind that anyone could do these amazing tricks if they spent the time and effort to set them up.”

Hevesh collected many more dominos. By age 10, she’d started posting videos of her own domino projects online. Now she’s 20, and she’s a professional domino artist. She has a YouTube channel, Hevesh5. More than 2 million people subscribe to it. She creates amazing domino setups for movies, TV shows, and events. One event was an album launch for pop star Katy Perry.

Hevesh has worked on team projects involving up to 300,000 dominoes. She even helped set a Guinness World Record. It was for the most dominoes falling in a circular pattern—76,017. Her largest projects take several nail-biting minutes to fall. Creating her complex displays is the hard part. After that, she just lets them fall according to the laws of physics.

THE DOMINO EFFECT

Hevesh says one physical phenomenon in particular is essential to a great domino setup. “Gravity is the main thing that makes my projects possible,” she says. This force pulls a knocked-over domino toward Earth, sending it crashing into the next domino and setting off a chain reaction.

Stephen Morris, a physicist at the University of Toronto, agrees that gravity is key when it comes to dominoes. “When you pick up a domino and stand it upright, lifting against the pull of gravity, you store some potential energy in it,” he says.

Hevesh says one physical force is most important to a great domino setup. “Gravity is the main thing that makes my projects possible,” she says. This force pulls a knocked-over domino toward Earth, so it crashes into the next domino. That sets off a chain reaction.

Stephen Morris is a physicist at the University of Toronto. He agrees that gravity is key for dominoes. “When you pick up a domino and stand it upright, lifting against the pull of gravity, you store some potential energy in it,” he says.

Before Hevesh knocks over one of her creations, thousands of dominoes stand right where she placed them. These unmoving dominoes have inertia, a tendency to resist motion when no outside force is pushing or pulling on them. But a tiny nudge is all it takes to push the first domino past its tipping point. “When that first domino falls, the potential energy that was stored in it becomes available to do something—mainly, to push on the next domino,” says Morris.

As the first domino falls, much of its potential energy converts to kinetic energy, the energy of motion (see Converting Energy). Some of that energy is transmitted to the next domino, providing the push needed to knock it over. Energy continues traveling from domino to domino—until the last one falls.

Before Hevesh knocks over a display, thousands of dominoes stand right where she placed them. These standing dominoes have inertia. That means they tend to resist motion when no outside force is pushing or pulling on them. But a tiny nudge will push the first domino past its tipping point. “When that first domino falls, the potential energy that was stored in it becomes available to do something—mainly, to push on the next domino,” says Morris.

The first domino falls. Much of its potential energy changes to kinetic energy, the energy of motion (see Converting Energy). Some of that energy passes to the next domino, giving the push needed to knock it over. Energy keeps traveling from domino to domino. Finally, the last one falls.

DESIGNING A DISPLAY

When Hevesh creates one of her mind-blowing domino setups, she follows a version of the engineering-design process. She starts by considering the theme or purpose of an installation. She brainstorms images or words she might want to use in the design.

Next, Hevesh plans out what kind of domino arrangements she wants to incorporate. They might include grids of dominoes that form pictures when they fall, stacked domino walls, or 3-D structures like domino towers or pyramids. Hevesh calculates how many dominoes of each color she’ll need before she starts building. But rather than counting tens of thousands of dominoes by hand, she weighs them and uses a formula to make sure she has enough of each type.

How does Hevesh create her mind-blowing domino setups? She follows a form of the engineering-design process. First, she thinks about the display’s theme or purpose. She brainstorms pictures or words she could use in the design.

Next, Hevesh plans the kind of domino patterns she wants to include. Some might be grids of dominoes that form pictures when they fall. Others could be stacked domino walls, or 3-D structures like domino towers or pyramids. But Hevesh doesn’t start building yet. First, she figures out how many dominoes of each color she’ll need. She doesn’t count tens of thousands of dominoes by hand. Instead, she weighs them. Then she uses a formula to make sure she has enough of each type.

There’s another important force that acts on toppling dominoes: friction. This slowing force comes into play whenever moving surfaces make contact. Falling dominoes create friction as they slide against one another and when their bottom edge slips against the ground. “Plastic dominoes on a polished floor can be very slippery. They’re going to topple differently than wooden dominoes on a rougher surface,” says Hevesh.

To account for such variations, Hevesh makes test versions of each section of an installation to make sure they work individually. Filming the tests in slow motion allows her to make precise corrections when something doesn’t go right. Once each section works perfectly, she puts them all together. The biggest 3-D sections go up first. Then she adds flat arrangements and finally the lines of dominoes that connect all the sections together.

Another important force acts on falling dominoes. It’s friction. This slowing force acts when moving surfaces make contact. Falling dominoes create friction as they slide against one another. They also create it when their bottom edge slips against the ground. “Plastic dominoes on a polished floor can be very slippery. They’re going to topple differently than wooden dominoes on a rougher surface,” says Hevesh.

Hevesh has to consider these differences. She makes test versions of each section of a display, to make sure each one works. She films the tests in slow motion. Then she can make tiny changes if something doesn’t go right. When each section works perfectly, she puts them all together. The biggest 3-D sections go up first. Next, she sets up flat sections. Then she adds the lines of dominoes that connect all the sections together.

VIA INSTAGRAM @HEVESH5

LINES AND SWIRLS: A portion of one of Hevesh’s sprawling designs

THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

Hevesh leaves safety gaps in the connecting lines, omitting a few dominoes here and there, until the last minute. That way, if she or a teammate accidentally knocks something over while putting on the finishing touches, the mistake doesn’t bring the whole installation crashing down. “I’m pretty good at preventing big accidental topples, but small ones happen in just about every project,” says Hevesh. “It’s almost inevitable with dominoes.”

When it’s time for the official run, Hevesh is usually a bit nervous. “No matter how much I’ve planned, there are always little things that surprise me,” she says. “I worry constantly that something will go wrong. Once the last domino has toppled, that’s when I can finally celebrate and sigh in relief.”

Hevesh leaves safety gaps in the connecting lines. She leaves out a few dominoes here and there, until the last minute. That’s because she or a teammate could accidentally knock something over. The gaps stop a mistake from bringing the whole display crashing down. “I’m pretty good at preventing big accidental topples, but small ones happen in just about every project,” says Hevesh. “It’s almost inevitable with dominoes.”

The time finally comes for the real run. Then Hevesh is usually a bit nervous. “No matter how much I’ve planned, there are always little things that surprise me,” she says. “I worry constantly that something will go wrong. Once the last domino has toppled, that’s when I can finally celebrate and sigh in relief.”

CORE QUESTION: How does testing each section of a display help Hevesh refine her domino designs?

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