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

  • Description:

    The Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A. ( 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.

Latest Comments (2)

Legitimizing Wonder.

by Whitney Ford-terry - January 07, 2009

As its etymological namesake denotes, today’s ‘museums’ are a manifestation of modern mythos, acting not only as the pluralistic daughters of memory, but as living depositories of wonder.

I have read up and down about this exhibition – sent friends and family – but sadly have not yet been – one day. soon.

Exhibitions like this snark at our current systems of institutionalized interpretation and remind us, as visitors and museum professionals, to not neglect our notion of wonder – that element of mystery that causes us to question the known world and seek out our own understanding. It’s in this sense of wonder that museums find their purpose – to exhibit and provide plausible context and meaning to objects both ordinary and extraordinary. People forget that.

A small slice

by Nina Simon - January 07, 2009

Thanks for your thoughts, Whitney. It’s worth mentioning that the exhibit in question occupies about 50 square feet. There are many reasons to see it, but it’s hard to imagine it as the basis for an entire outing. Make sure you catch the flower xrays—they are a great complement at the MJT.

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