In a new book, an Ohio State University scholar examines the unlikely pairing of this mathematical concept and the culture and art of Africa.
“While fractal geometry is often used in high-tech science, its patterns are surprisingly common in traditional African designs,” said Ron Eglash, senior lecturer in comparative studies in the humanities. Eglash is author of African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design (Rutgers University Press, 1999).
Eglash said his work suggests that African mathematics is more complex than previously thought. He also says using African fractals in U.S. classrooms may boost interest in math among students, particularly African Americans. He has developed a Web page to help teachers use fractal geometry in the classroom. (http://www.cohums.ohio-state.edu/comp/eglash.dir/afractal.htm)
Fractals are geometric patterns that repeat on ever-shrinking scales. Many natural objects, like ferns, tree branches, and lung bronchial systems are shaped like fractals. Fractals can also be seen in many of the swirling patterns produced by computer graphics, and have become an important new tool for modeling in biology, geology, and other natural sciences.
In African Fractals, Eglash discusses fractal patterns that appear in widespread components of indigenous African culture, from braided hairstyles and kente cloth to counting systems and the design of homes and settlements.
Other researchers have studied bits and pieces of African mathematics in areas such as art, architecture, and religious practices, but Eglash said this is the first attempt to describe the common theme of fractal geometry among several different African cultures.
“There is no singular ‘reason’ why Africans use fractals, any more than a singular reason why Americans like rock music,” Eglash noted in his book. “Such enormous cultural practices just cover too much social terrain.”
He began this research in the 1980s when he noticed the striking fractal patterns in aerial photos of African settlements: circles of circular houses, rectangles inside rectangles, and streets branching like trees. Eglash confirmed his visual intuition by calculating the geometry of the arrangements in the photos — they were indeed fractal…