I recently started reading this book after watching Ron Eglash’s lecture on Ted.com. While watching the video I realized that I had no idea what fractals are, or that this particular system of geometry played such a vital role in African culture. Ron Eglash does a great job during this talk on Ted.com of quickly explaining the basics to the uninformed listener, but once I started looking through books (other than his) about fractals in general, I was greeted with page after page of mathematical formulas that I had no idea how to interpret.
The one big plus about Ron Eglash’s book, African Fracals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design, is that it starts with the assumption that the reader knows little or nothing about fractals in general. After a thoroughly informative crash course on fractal geometry, the book goes on to systematically examine the importance of this geometric system in all facets of African culture.
Even though I’ve barely made it through half of the book so far it has already provided me with a deeper understanding of the techniques behind African design and numerical systems. Usually I’ll finish a book this intriguing rather quickly, but in the case of African Fractals I find myself having to put it down often to give myself time to fully digest the amount of new knowledge it contains. However, a more mathematically inclined person with an existing knowledge of fractals would probably be able to internalize it all at a faster rate.
I also have a great amount of respect for the way Eglash is able to retain such a strong focus, and essentially de-bunk a variety of possible digression from his main point – the specificity of fractal geometry in African culture as opposed to any other culture of the world. The second chapter of the book examines the use of fractal geometry in the layout and architecture of pre-colonial African settlements. At the same time he is very careful not to have the reader assume an inherent connection between indigenous, or non-western, societies and fractals. In chapter 3 he goes on to examine the art and arcitecture of a cross section of non-western and indigenous communities throughout the world to display only a sparse use of fractal geometry anywhere outside of Africa.
Fractal geometry had been and important part for African culture for centuries, long before western mathematicians realized that it was even theoretically possible. The big question that many people may have on their minds is how much of this applied use of fractals comes from an “unconscious activity” (i.e. I made the design that way cause it just seemed right), and how much of it comes from applied mathematics? Eglash shows a few examples from within and outside of African culture that clearly fit into the “unconscious activity” group, but the next few chapter goes on to explicitly demonstrate how African artisans, artists, and builders directly applied mathematical thinking to their designs for practical purposes. A good example of this is in how and why windscreens are build differently at different heights in different parts of Africa. The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind, literally; stronger winds in different parts of Africa equal more sand in your house unless you do something about it. Eglash explains how fractals helped African people achieve better windscreen design.
That’s about as far as I’ve gotten at the moment, but I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in African culture, fractal design, and even computer programming. Both in his book, and during his Ted.com talk, Eglash presents link between binary numerical systems used in Bamana divination rituals and the binary code that all computers operate on today. This is excatly the section that I am reading at the moment and for me, the most inspiring and intriguing section of the book so far. It seems to touch on so many topics all at once. I even think there is a brief mention of Aleister Crowley in there somewhere, bridging the gap between ancient African culture and Black Sabbath.
Here is a link to Ron Eglash’s homepage. It’s a little bland, but there is a wealth of additional information there as well as some interactive web-pages involving fractals. Have fun!
May 31, 2009