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Alt-week 7.28.12: social mathematics, Pluto's moons and humans-on-a-chip

Alt-week peels back the covers on some of the more curious sci-tech stories from the last seven days.

Alt-week 7.28.12

It's a beautiful world we live in. And, while the sweet and romantic part is debatable, strange and fantastic is not. Our universe is one populated by non-planetary celestial bodies with their own non-planetary satellites, high school social hierarchies based on predictable mathematical formulas and military-funded "gut-on-a-chips." It's a weird place filled with weird stories, and we just can't get enough of it. So, what has the last seven days brought us from the fringes of science and tech? Keep reading after the break to find out. This is alt-week.

Turns out, math isn't just something you suffer through in high school -- it can actually determine your social standing. In the clique-filled world of secondary school there is a clear social hierarchy, and researchers at the University of Michigan believe they've found the formula that unlocks its secrets. The unfortunate truth is that social circles are filled with one-way relationships and, the more unreciprocated ties you're the benefactor of, the higher your social standing. Not only that but, the more lower-ranked individuals claiming friendship with you increases as you advance from one grade to the next and as your number of true friendships grows. Turns out high school isn't really all that tough to figure out after all -- so long as you can pass pre-calc.

Altweek 72812 social mathematics, Pluto's moons and humansonachip

Maybe you couldn't quite figure out that whole "people" thing in high school (there's enough us on staff at Engadget -- we understand), but perhaps you could increase your social standing by making your own friends. We're not quite to the point where you can cause a beautiful woman to materialize Anthony Michael Hall-style, but researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard are inching us closer with some help from DARPA. The military research arm has agreed to work with the school's scientists and provide them with up to $37 million in funding to further develop their organ-on-a-chip program. The goal is to use flexible plastic circuits to recreate all the basic functions of the human body, from digestion to breathing and everything in between. They claim that the primary goal is to provide platforms for studying diseases, toxins and medication, but we know the truth -- the army wants replicants.

Not every attempt to recreate the human anatomy in synthetic form is destined to lead to our enslavement, however. Engineers at the University of Missouri are using the human eye as inspiration for what may be the printers of the future. See, your eyelids actually spread a film of oil over your eyeball which protects a thin layer of tears that allow you to keep your eye open without it drying out. Similarly, an inkjet printer's nozzles need to be kept open to put words and images on paper, but drying out can lead to clogs and less than desirable results. By placing a tiny droplet of silicon oil in the nozzle the researchers are able to prevent the ink from crusting up. Obviously an eyelid-like shutter mechanism would be too large and complicated for something as small as a print head, so an electrical field is applied instead to keep the film spread thin.

Altweek 72812 social mathematics, Pluto's moons and humansonachip

Our eyes aren't just good for inspiring technology, they're also pretty good for lookin' at stuff. Sometimes they need a little help from something like the Hubble Space Telescope, but its our peepers that ultimately spotted Pluto's fifth moon, P5. Since being demoted from planet to dwarf planet in 2006 we've actually discovered two new moons orbiting the icy sun satellite. Which makes us wonder if -- is Pluto trying to convince the International Astronomical Union to reverse its decision? At least it's got entire class of space debris named after it now. Being the inspiration for the name Plutoid has to count for something, right?

Altweek 72812 social mathematics, Pluto's moons and humansonachip

Seen any other far-out articles that you'd like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that's too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com