Monday, 1 October 2012

WARNING: Domino testing in progress!

Matt Parker gets practicing for the main event
What happens when you let a group of mathematicians loose with 3000 dominoes and a large, flat public space? That’s right - they will attempt to create a giant domino computer....

Recently we were lucky enough to get a bit of a sneak preview of the Domino Computer Challenge, one of our exciting upcoming Festival events and the brainchild of Josh Award winner and Science Communicator in Residence Matt Parker.

It’s quite difficult in words to convey exactly what a domino computer is (it’s far easier when you see one in action so check out Matt’s demo video of a domino logic gate) but the Challenge will essentially involve Matt and his dedicated team building a giant physical representation of a simple ‘adding’ computation, similar to that which takes place when you use a calculator to add two numbers together.

As Matt explains on a recent edition of Pulse-Project's Maths/Maths podcast:
“At the very basic, a computer is adding binary code (made up of 1s and 0s) together. It uses what’s called a logic circuit where you input 1s and 0s, does some calculation on them and then gives you an output in 1s and 0s. So a very simple thing you might want to do is add two numbers together. For example 4 + 5 = 9, or in binary terms 100 + 101 = 1001. You can do this with electronic components, or circuits, like normal computers do, but we’re trying to build circuits out of dominoes.”
So by placing thousands of dominoes (and using a huge amount of skill!) in a complex circuit pattern and then setting off domino chains where a falling domino represents a binary code change from 0 to 1, the Domino Computer will, in theory, be able to add together two 3-digit binary numbers and get a 4-digit answer.

The computer will be built in front of MOSI's
replica of The Baby - the world's first
stored-program computer

A project as ambitious as this takes a lot of planning and testing. From the risk of rogue falling dominoes to an error in the circuit design, there is a lot that could potentially go wrong. So along with his team of volunteers and armed with more dominoes than we’ve ever seen in one place before, Matt recently visited MOSI to test out the floor (which thankfully proved to be flat and smooth enough to host the challenge) and try out some initial circuit designs. Despite the urge to knock over the domino chains (who wouldn’t be tempted?) we managed to resist and looked on in slight awe as the team created a few small test circuits and posed with our photographer for a few snaps.

So what’s made Matt want to take on one of his most fiddliest and nerve-biting challenges to date? It’s all about explaining the mysteries of computing:
“When people look at a computer, no one really understands how it works. For most people it’s a mystery box where ‘magic’ happens, so we want to show them a laid out example of a very, very basic computer. We’re showing how if you carefully plan and organise physical objects, in this case dominoes, they can ‘think’ and do calculations. This is the basis of all computing and we just want to show people at a fundamental level how that happens.”
Well said Matt, and we can’t wait to see it in action!

Event info:

The Domino Computer Challenge will take place on Sat 27th and Sun 28th Oct in MOSI’s Manchester Revolution Gallery, and as well as watching the construction team in action, building the computer domino by domino, there will be the chance to have a go yourself with some smaller domino hands-on activities. And if you miss the computer being "switched on" don't worry - the team will be creating a time lapse video to capture the whole thing!

by Nicola Frost, Science Festival Project Officer, MOSI

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