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What is a Domino?

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A domino is a rectangular piece of material, typically made from wood or ivory and marked with one to six pips, that forms the basis for a variety of games. Dominoes are cousins to playing cards and are among the oldest tools for game play. They can also provide an object lesson in the way one small trigger may initiate a series of events that lead to success or failure.

The word domino comes from the Latin dominum, meaning “heavy,” a reference to the weight of these early sets of tiles. Initially, domino pieces were painted with various designs on each face to identify them. Later, they were stamped with Arabic numerals to distinguish them from other types of dominoes and allow players to compare their scores. Today, dominoes are made from a variety of materials, including ceramic clay and even frosted glass. Some are sculpted into figures, while others are engraved or painted with numbers and symbols.

Dominos are a common game for children, and they are used to teach number recognition and counting. In this activity, each child puts down a single domino on a base or on a flat arrangement of other dominoes and then picks up and stacks the next domino in the line so that it reaches the end of the set. Then the first domino is removed, and the process is repeated.

Another popular use of the term domino is in the idiom, “the Domino Effect,” which refers to the way a small action can have large consequences. This adage was coined by political columnist Willi Alsop in 1955, when he wrote that America’s decision to provide aid to South Vietnam could create a domino effect, with Communism spreading from one country to another. The idiom is still in use, and it can be applied to many scenarios in business and everyday life.

Physicist Stephen Morris explains that when you stand a domino upright, it stores energy based on its position. But when the domino falls, much of that energy converts to kinetic energy and causes the next domino to topple over.

The same principle applies to a chain reaction in the brain, where a nerve impulse travels down a long string of neurons to reach its final destination. The pulse is quick and powerful, but it’s an all-or-nothing event—once the first domino topples, the rest follow.

Lily Hevesh grew up with the classic 28-pack of dominoes and loved setting them up in straight or curved lines, flicking them and watching them fall. Now she is a professional domino artist who has created spectacular sets for movies, TV shows and events, including the launch of Katy Perry’s new album. Hevesh makes a test version of each section of her installations and films them in slow motion to make precise corrections when something doesn’t work as expected. Then she assembles the sections in order of their size and complexity, adding 3-D arrangements before finishing with lines of flat dominoes.

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