Rotten Luck: The Decaying Dice of Ricky Jay
of an Exhibit
by Nina Simon
Published on April 26, 2007 , Modified on August 08, 2011
Museum: Museum of Jurassic Technology
Visit Date: Fall, 2006
The Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A. (www.mjt.org) is one of my favorite museums. It’s quirky, confounding, and exquisitely strange—and that strangeness captures my imagination in a way that more typical exhibits and presentation styles don’t.
The last time I was there, I saw the fairly new collection of Ricky Jay’s “failed dice.” According to the label text, as written by Ricky Jay (famed magician and historian of magic), “These cellulose nitrate dice, the industry standard until the middle of the twentieth century (when they were replaced with less flammable cellulose acetate), typically remain stable for decades. Then, in a flash, they can dramatically decompose. The crystallization begins on the corners and then spreads to the edges. Nitric acid is released in a process called outgassing. The dice cleave, crumble, and then implode. Unpaired electrons or free radicals can abet the deterioration.”
It’s not clear in this exhibit where the balance lies between pseudo-science, tricksterism, art, and reality. Some of the dice resemble children’s pulled teeth. Others look like they were cobbled together from sea glass and metal picks. All of them suggest an organic volatility to the mathematics of probability, a wildness that challenges the hardened laws of math—and our expectations about the stability of materials.
I love this exhibit because it, like so many at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, drops a tiny question mark like a monkey wrench into assumptions we make every day. It takes the basic concept of chance and turns it into a beautiful challenge to think—an open question instead of a closed experience. It made me think twice the next time I rolled a die, not about whether I would roll a 5, but about combustibility and potential for the unexpected inherent in all things.