Every year, for the last 16 years, MIT holds a big, boisterous, crazy event called the FAT Chain Reaction (FAT stands for Friday After Thanksgiving). Its a large scale, collaborative effort to build a giant Rube Goldberg style contraption. Teams of people design and build their own “chain reaction” in the weeks or months ahead of time. On the day of the event they all assemble them in an MIT gymnasium and each of these creations are hooked together into a single massive contraption that fills the entire gym.
I’ve heard about it for years but have never attended. This year, I spotted a story about it in the Boston Globe and decided to take my daughter and her 10 year old friend Mackia. We went down there yesterday and within minutes of arriving we bumped into our neighbors from around the corner. Anna and Sherry told us that two families that we know, from my daughter’s school (Countryside), had built one of the chain reactions. We tracked them down and found the Schwartz’s (Abby, Jordan and their kids Simon, Caleb, and Jenna) and the Zerens (Deb (Hahn), Mark and their kids Anna, Ari, and Asa) working on one of the most interesting contraptions in a sea of interesting contraptions. The most prominent feature of their “chain reaction” was a large box filled entirely with mouse traps.
At 3:30 PM with much fanfare, suspense and a big loud 5-4-3-2-1 countdown, the chain reaction was started by pulling a string and tipping over a bottle …. and nothing happened! The operator forgot to unscrew the bottle top. No problem, another big countdown and off it went. Once started, the gym sized contraption took about 20 minutes to slowly work its way from start to end. Along the way, there were endless combinations of ramps, balls, levers, strings, pulleys, etc and all sorts of surprises. At various points along the way the chain reaction unfurled signs, released helium balloons and even decorated a cake.
The Schwartz-Zeren families’ Newton entry turned out to be probably the biggest crowd pleaser of the whole event. The previous contraption pulled a string and released a ball that rolled in very slow motion down a ramp on top of the Schwartz-Zeren giant box. The ball was apparently filled with molasses or syrup or something very viscous. As the ball slowly rolled, the crowd slowly realized what was going to happen. At the bottom of the ramp was a ball, sitting beside a hole in the top of the giant box. Inside, the entire giant box was filled with dozens of set mouse traps, each with a ping pong ball on top. After an endless buildup, the slow motion ball reached the bottom, knocked the ball down the hole, and the entire box exploded with mouse traps and ping pong balls flying everywhere. The crowd went wild!
My favorite moment of the day:
In addition to the main event there was also a large area of the gym set up for kids to just play and build stuff. They had various stations filled with massive quantities of materials – thousands of paper cups, dominoes, ramps, marbles, etc. When we came into the area we passed a very studious looking girl intently building a very large structure out of small paper cups. She was maybe 12 years old. My daughter and her friend Mackia played in the area for about an hour and on the way out we passed the same girl and now she was standing on a stool carefully adding yet more cups to her giant sculpture. Ten year old Mackia walked up to the sculpture. The girl took one look at him and said in a loud commanding voice “take two steps backward!!”. Mackia started to ask a question and she caught his eye with an icy stare and said even louder “TAKE TWO STEPS BACKWARDS!!”. Clearly this girl was very experienced with both large scale assembly projects and with 10 year old boys.