Our social networks are abstract, but others, such as the circuitry in our brains or the underground networks of fungi that trees use to communicate, have to exist physically. Physical networks, which are restricted by the laws of three-dimensional space, captured the interest of Nima Dehmamy, a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern’s Center for Complex Network Research. A simple network tends to resemble an old ball-and-stick molecule set, with large nodes linked by small, relatively straight connections. The links have to bend and push against each other until the whole network begins to look more like a pile of spaghetti. Understanding the physics of these theoretical networks can help researchers to study real-world networks such as the human brain, Dehmamy said. “Our work offers a new tool set to study networks whose links and nodes are physical objects that cannot cross, from brains to computer wiring,” Barab├ísi said. While 3D printing technology has not yet advanced to the point where researchers can print something as complex as a working hard drive or a functional robot brain, printed models provide researchers a new way to study the layout and connections of a network.

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