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Humanities and Social Sciences

Out of Africa

African pattern on computer monitor
Fractal geometry—the geometry of similar shapes repeated on ever-shrinking scales—is apparent everywhere in Africa, from hairstyles to religious practices, says new research by Ron Eglash, assistant professor of science and technology studies.   

Eglash thinks this discovery could be an effective new tool for teaching African-Americans about their mathematical heritage, and a new approach to integrating information technology with Third World development.   

He documents fractal patterns in cornrow hairstyles, weavings, architecture of African villages, and Santeria (the traditional religion of the Yoruba people of West Africa), as well as in many forms of African art.   

“One of the benefits of including indigenous mathematics in education is that it helps combat the worst forms of biological determinism—the myth that our thinking is limited by our racial genetics,” Eglash says. “And that’s a problem for all ethnic groups.”   

Eglash says fractal design themes reveal that traditional African mathematics may be much more complicated than previously thought. He documents his findings in a new book, African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design published by Rutgers University Press.   

During his fieldwork as a Fulbright Scholar in west and central Africa, it became obvious to Eglash that fractal patterns he had noticed in aerial photos of African villages were intentional.   

“The fractal designs were everywhere, and some of them were based on explicit geometric algorithms,” says Eglash. “Even more astonishing were the numeric systems which used re-cursion similar to pseudo-random number generation in computers.   

“Educators need to rethink the way in which disciplines like African studies have tended to skip over math, science, and technology,” Eglash continues. He has been working with African-American math teachers on ways to get African-American students interested in the subject.   

Gloria Gilmer, an African-American math educator who runs the Milwaukee-based MathTech Inc., suggested Eglash focus on the geometry of black hairstyles as a good way to connect with contemporary African-American culture. Eglash’s Web site (www.rpi. edu/~eglash/eglash.htm) includes an interactive Java simulation that allows students to explore scaling models with relation to cornrow hairstyles. Eglash hopes to eventually create a CD-ROM-based math lab that includes his African fractals material as well as African-American designs such as hairstyles, quilts, and other arts and crafts.

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