Metro

Looking for a reaction at MIT

Benjamin Ab (top left) and Michael Kagan fine-tuned their link Friday.
Craig F. Walker/Globe staff
Benjamin Ab (top left) and Michael Kagan fine-tuned their link Friday.

CAMBRIDGE — In theory, it is supposed to be a smooth chain reaction. Part of the fun is that it never quite goes that way. Because the goal of this chain reaction is to take something simple — moving a golf ball from one side of a table to the other — and make it spectacularly complicated.

For the 19th year, the MIT Museum held its Friday After Thanksgiving, or F.A.T., Chain Reaction, an event in which teams build Rube Goldberg machines that will, they hope, connect with each other to keep the chain reaction moving all the way around a gymnasium.

“Sometimes, the most exciting moments are when something is on the verge of working and does not,” said Arthur Ganson, the acclaimed kinetic artist who created the event nearly two decades ago and now runs it with fellow kinetic artist Jeff Lieberman.

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“Things like this show that science and art don’t have to be enemies,” Lieberman said. “And what I love about this is that the children don’t know they’re learning. They’re playing, and then suddenly they understand something about science, engineering, and logic.”

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The F.A.T. draws teams from all over the region — from schools and youth centers to individual families — who are each assigned to build a contraption that can keep the chain reaction moving. The more ambitious the concept, the more problems that can arise.

“We worked on it for four weeks before we finally had that happy moment when we got it to work,” said Will Steinberg, 16, of Marblehead, who had built a contraption with his father, John, that involved all sorts of ramps, magnetic iron filings, and a golf ball gondola fashioned from a plastic bottle.

As they were getting ready for the chain reaction, his father was quickly re-gluing some sections that were failing. “We built it in a cold garage because my wife won’t let us in the house,” John Steinberg said. “Now all the heat inside this gym is playing havoc.”

On the other side of the gym, Don Masur of Quincy and his 13-year-old son, Owen, were getting ready for their eighth chain reaction. “Instead of getting trampled on Black Friday, we do this,” Owen said as they made last-minute adjustments to their contraption.

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“You can test it 50 times and it will work perfectly, but then it will fail when it matters,” Don Masur said as he prepared some washers that were to shimmy down metal poles.

The theme for this year’s build was symmetry, and so at 3:23 — a time chosen for its symmetry — the chain reaction began, with Ganson and Lieberman following it. Occasionally, Ganson would have to intervene with what has become known as “the hand of God” to nudge things along.

As the golf ball continued its journey, up and down ramps, through tubes, triggering bicycle rims to spin and dominoes to fall, the packed crowd in the Rockwell Cage was a mixture of cheering and gasping as the fragile reaction fought its way around the gym floor.

Many things went right. Many others did not (a team from the Gately Youth Center in Cambridge was disappointed that a bag filled with glitter had failed to explode all over the team next to them). Until eventually, after nine minutes and 46 seconds and a few interventions from the “hand of God,” the final reaction sent two balloons aloft, and Ganson announced into the microphone: “As usual, everything worked perfectly.”

The final reaction was finished when balloons rose.
Craig F. Walker/Globe staff
The final reaction was finished when balloons rose.

Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.