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No stopping this chain reaction

Day-after Thanksgiving event has quickly become an MIT ritual

Team Rubicon X watched its entry perform. “This is what nerds do on the day after Thanksgiving,’’ said Tricia Nguyen. Team Rubicon X watched its entry perform. “This is what nerds do on the day after Thanksgiving,’’ said Tricia Nguyen. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / November 26, 2011
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T he goal seemed simple: Read a sonnet aloud. But in a celebration of innovation, creativity, and the engineering spirit, the poem started yesterday with a tug on a string - which lifted a gate, which sent a toy car sliding down a ramp, which caused a plastic head of lettuce to tumble from a colander, which toppled a faux can of potato chips, which triggered a shopping cart to nudge forward, which pushed an ice cream cone down a ramp, which flipped waffles, which sent a pan flying down a zip line.

Twenty-one minutes later, with mousetraps sprung, dominoes tumbled, and rockets shot high into the air at stations set up around the outer edge of a gymnasium, 14 ostrich feathers inscribed with the lines of a sonnet drifted into the waiting hands of volunteers.

It’s a Black Friday ritual that brings together more than two dozen teams to build and tweak elaborate Rube Goldberg-style machines, hooking them up in one long chain reaction at an event organized by the MIT Museum, called the Friday After Thanksgiving (FAT) Chain Reaction.

“It’s for those of us who don’t want to go to a shopping mall and fight the crowds,’’ said Tricia Nguyen of Arlington, stepping away as her family members - team Rubicon X - worked frenetically on a machine that carried a golf ball up a steep climb, then utilized a funnel, a loop-the-loop, and vibrating robotic bugs to push their ball toward the next team. “This is what nerds do on the day after Thanksgiving.’’

The FAT event, themed this year to celebrate sonnets because they have 14 lines and FAT is 14 years old, was initially just crammed into the hallways of the MIT Museum, said event emcee Arthur Ganson, a kinetic sculptor whose work is featured at the museum and who calls himself the “instigator.’’

In years since, the event has grown, now drawing a packed crowd at the Rockwell Cage Gymnasium at MIT. It’s not just about who can make the coolest contraption or even, in the end, about judging whether the execution is flawless (which it rarely is).

People register in advance for the event, often tempted to give it a try after visiting as spectators. There is a modest team registration fee, and a set of basic guidelines: Individual reactions should not take more than three minutes, cannot use chemicals except baking soda or vinegar, and cannot involve plugging something into a wall - although batteries are OK.

The challenge requires creativity, problem solving, and duct tape.

“The invention is happening up until the last minute; it’ll probably keep happening after the chain reaction starts, too,’’ Ganson said. When the contraptions won’t behave in the pressure of the moment - a ball needs a bit of a nudge, or a string an extra tug - inventors can give it a little help.

“Then,’’ Ganson said, “there’s a friendly intervention I like to call ‘the hand of God.’ ’’

The teams are mainly families or school groups, and everyone’s talents come in handy. This was the fifth or sixth FAT for 14-year-old Gabryela Sinclair, who gave a tour of her family’s contraption, Mathematical Cymbals. It was supposed to work like this: When a neighbor’s contraption tugs on a string, it pulls a loop that sets off a complicated chain reaction. A robotic control device then taps a cymbal to the rhythm of iambic pentameter; ball bearings begin clattering down on cymbals, and a mousetrap springs.

“Key ingredients are mousetraps and duct tape,’’ said her father, Ken.

Nearby, 7-year-old Felix Sims was inspired by a vision of paper airplanes taking off and Lego cars racing away. To kick off his contraption, a car raced down a track after a string pulled a barrier out of the way. The car cornered, then zoomed off the edge of the track, triggering a series of Lego cars to start rolling down a ramp. The descending cars launched brightly colored paper airplanes into the audience via rubber band propulsion. Finally, after the last Lego car rolled out of its spot, a hockey puck struck a cymbal, tugging the string to start the next link.

At the end, Ganson’s own creation - a 10-foot section of gutter topped with an L-shaped outcropping - began to slowly drop 14 ostrich feathers into the cupped hands of inventors of all ages. The lines of Ganson’s sonnet were read aloud and cheered: “Remember: like our creations here, we’re all interconnected.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.

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