Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ron Eglash on African fractals

By Makayla L.

Dr. Ron Eglash is a mathematician that studies how math and cultures from around the world are connected with one another. His profession is called ethno-mathematics. In his presentation, Dr. Eglash starts by giving his audience some background knowledge of how “fractals,” which are mathematical patterns, were discovered. He tells the audience about how he, when doing research, noticed fractals exist throughout many African villages. Wanting to learn more about his discovery, he earned a year scholarship to travel around Africa and explore different towns' and villages' architectural structures, patterns, etc. On a daily basis he would travel village to village. He would ask people (in his very poor French) if he could stand on top of their buildings to catch a better glimpse of the structures for his research, and of course the nice African people would let him. He noticed the same patterns over and over again in every structure. Dr. Eglash started to ask himself how this was possible and he describes it as “absolutely mind blowing.” These buildings were built way before the late mathematicians had discovered any sort of fractal so how could this possibly be? What he did was he started to ask people in the African villages how they thought the patterns had started. He normally got the answer, “it just looks good that way,” or something along those lines. Another day, he went to the chief of a palace in a small village and asked if he could stand on the roof. The two went up to the roof and they started talking about how the rooms within the palace were fractals. The chief said, “Oh yes, we know all about the rectangles within rectangles.” Dr. Eglash later went on to find out that in the Royal Insignia, there is a path which is shaped as a spiral. To get closer to the middle, you have to become more and more polite, so not only are they using this for mapping the social scale, but it is also geometric scaling at the same time without knowing it when it was built. Dr. Eglash looked into other cultures and different parts of the world’s designs, but only Africa managed to have fractal patterns. He found out that these patterns were not made from mathematical sense, but from Self-Organizing Algorithms, which are very important in today’s life. He discovered that every little digital circuit of technology we use today, started in Africa through these Self-Organizing Algorithms. Things we use everyday like Google, PDA’s, and cell phones. I think that this is a discovery Dr. Eglash should be very proud of and his name will for sure be going into the books for this.

I thought that Dr. Eglash delivered his presentation with a very clear voice. He stood by his computer and showed the audience a number of examples of fractals and discoveries he had come up with that were very effective. He gives an example to the audience so that they can connect to what he is saying by showing them that fractals exist within their fingers and other parts of the body. This is a very good way to get the audience involved and he did it at the start which hooked them into the rest of the speech. However, through his speech, he does not leave his podium once, which makes the speech boring and stiff. He does use hand gestures quite a bit as well. Other speakers I have seen really catch the attention of the audience by walking around while presenting and make eye contact with the audience throughout the presentation. His presentation lacked this. He also made too many references to discoveries of other mathematicians, which I found to be extremely boring. His word choice was very creative and structured and let me know that he is a very intelligent man. I felt that some of the mathematics he was explaining to the audience could have been explained more thoroughly. All in all, I think that Dr. Eglash had a fairly decent presentation in my mind, and I would like to see him progress in his research and listen to another amazing discovery being unraveled by him one day.

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