A Stylish Way to Get Math in Your Head

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

You know that you can have a mathematical equation in your head, but how about in your hair?

Raychel Hopkins, 10, never thought about braiding math into her hair, either. But here she is on a Sunday afternoon at the Baltimore Museum of Art using math concepts to design a braided hairstyle on a computer.

"Our math teacher doesn't teach us like this. I like this math," says the Baltimore fourth-grader.

Raychel is working on a computer program designed by Ron Eglash, who teaches science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. Years ago, Eglash began studying patterns found in African architecture, art, fabric, clothing and even hairstyles.

A Focus on Fractals

The patterns are called fractals -- geometric designs that repeat in a pattern that gets smaller and smaller, sometimes to the point where you can't see it anymore, and sometimes into infinity (beyond where it can be counted).

You might have studied fractals at school or seen them in patterns. Maybe you've doodled some fractals: a big box, a slightly smaller box, an even smaller box, and more and more small boxes. . . .

"Fractal geometry is everywhere, even in lines drawn in the sand," Eglash says. "It's the cycle of life. . . . You see fractals in plants, in flowers. Within the human lung are branches within branches."

During a year spent in Africa, Eglash saw fractals everywhere, including in baskets, fences and artwork. Entire villages were built using fractals: The houses, shaped like cylinders, were in a spiral pattern, at the center of which was a tiny village, Eglash says, "and that is the ancestors' village."

"Mathematicians didn't invent infinity until 1877. So they thought it was impossible that Africans could be using fractal geometry," he says, when, in fact, "they were using infinity long before."

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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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