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Physics Project Lab: How to create the domino effect

In the last of the Physics Project Lab blog posts, Paul Gluck, co-author of Physics Project Lab, describes how to create and investigate the domino effect…

Many dominoes may be stacked in a row separated by a fixed distance, in all sorts of interesting formations. A slight push to the first domino in the row results in the falling of the whole stack. This is the domino effect, a term also used in figuratively in a political context.

You can use this amusing phenomenon to carry out a little project in physics. Instead of dominoes it’s preferable to use units that are uniformly smooth on both sides, say for example building blocks for kids. Chuildren’s building blocks usually come in sets of 100, 200 or 280 blocks.

The blocks are stacked in a perfect straight line, absolutely uniformly spaced. To ensure this, lay them along the extended metal strip of a builder’s ruler several meters long, fixed at both ends. A non polished wooden floor is a suitable surface, since its roughness is enough to prevent any sliding of the blocks while falling.

What is interesting to measure and correlate in your experimentation? You want to measure the speed of the pulse when the first block is given a reproducibly slight push. In other words, you must measure the total length of the stack, as well as the time between the beginning of the fall of the first block and the fall of the last one. The speed will then be the total distance divided by the time elapsed.

Domino Rally, by mikeyp2000. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.
Domino Rally, by mikeyp2000. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

There are several questions you can ask and investigate. First, how does the spacing between the blocks affect the pulse speed? Second, for the same spacing, how do the pulse speeds compare between two cases: the first, with the regular blocks, and the second when you double the height of each block (by sticking two blocks on top of each other to form a single block)? Third, for large numbers of units N in the stack, does the speed depend on the number of units (say when N = 100 and when N = 200)? Finally, does the speed vary for small numbers of units in the stack, say for values between 5 and 15?

For fair comparison between the various cases, you must devise a way to give the slight initial push reproducibly. One way you can arrange this is by releasing a pendulum above the first block and releasing it from a fixed distance so that at the end of its swing the bob just touches the first block, causing it to fall.

For time measurements you need a stopwatch. Be aware that you have a reaction time between when you perceive any event and the pressing of the stopwatch – this can be anything from 0.1 to 0.3 seconds. So repeat each measurement a number of times and take the average. If you have access to two photogates in a physics lab, you can devise a more accurate way of measuring the pulse speed. Actuate the first one by the beginning of the fall of the first block, the second one by the fall of the last one. Couple the two photogates by a circuit that triggers measuring the time when the first brick starts to fall and stops measuring it when the second block falls.  You can also video the whole event and analyze the clip frame-by-frame to calculate times.

Happy tinkering!

We hope you have enjoyed the Physics Project Lab series. Have you tried this experiment or any of the other experiments at home? Tell us how it went to get the chance to win a free copy of ‘Physics Project Lab’. We’ll pick our favourite descriptions on 9th January.

Recent Comments

  1. Hector

    Im using this for my science fair!!!!!!!!

  2. Carlos B

    Im using this for my science fair for school!!!!!!

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