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Philip Emeagwali

Philip Emeagwali

Philip Emeagwali

Dr Philip Chukwurah Emeagwal, mathematician and computer scientist, was born on August 23, 1954 in Akure, a remote village in Nigera son of James and Agatha Emeagwali; He was the oldest of nine children and his father, who worked as a nurse’s aide, earned only a modest income.

As a result, at age 14, Philip was forced to drop out of school in Onitsha because his father could not continue paying the fees to keep him in school. He had shown such great promise in mathematics that his classmates nicknamed him “Calculus.�, his father encouraged him to continue learning at home. 

Every evening, Philip’s father would quiz him in math as well as other subjects. He would ask these questions in a rapid-fire manner, prompting Philip to think quickly on his feet.

Eventually, Philip was tasked to answer 100 question in an hour, which to his father’s delight, he succeeded in. His father taught him until Philip “knew more than his father did.� Unable to attend school, Philip instead journeyed to the public library, spending most of his day there.

He sped through books appropriate for his age and moved up to college-level material, studying mathematics, chemistry, physics and English. A couple years after he dropped out of school, a civil war broke out and he was drafted into the Biafran army that did not deter Emeagwali. During 1967-70 period, his family was homeless. Sometimes, they slept in refugee camps, abandoned school buildings and bombed houses.

The hardship of living in a refugee camp made him psychologically strong. It was called learning from the school of hard knocks. It made him street smart. It equipped him with a greater sense of determination and vision. He believed his intellect was a way out of the line of fire. and when the war ended, Emeagwali enrolled at Christ the King College in Onitsha, renowned for its academic challenge. There were no school buses, so he walked two hours to and from school each day.

He studied harder than his classmates, he believed and excelled, sometimes sleeping only three hours each night. He continued to study at the local public library. There, in the library, he taught himself advanced math, physics, and chemistry and at the age of 17, completed his high school equivalency test and won a scholarship to study mathematics at Oregon State University. He later married a U.S. citizen Dale Brown, August 15, 1981; has three children: Ijeoma, Nnamdi, Onyeamechi.

EDUCATION

Dr. Philip Emeagwali is also known as the “Bill Gates of Africa�. He was born in Nigeria in the year 1957. Like many African schoolchildren, he dropped out of school at age 14 because his father could not continue paying the fees to keep him in school. However, his father continued teaching him at home, and everyday Emeagwali performed mental exercises such as solving 100 math problems in one hour. His father taught him until Philip “knew more than his father did.� He had a total of eight years of formal classroom education. As a result, he was not comfortable with formal lectures and receiving regular homework assignments. He preferred to study those subjects that were of interest to him. He learned by reading the classic but out-of-date works of Galileo, Isaac Newton, Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein. Since there were no formally trained scientists in his hometown, the famous commercial city of Onitsha, he gained a word-of-mouth reputation as an expert in mathematics, physics and astronomy and students came to consult him in these subjects. Dr. Philip Emeagwali wanted to become a mathematician, physicist or astronomer. At age 19, he decided to apply to colleges in Europe and the United States and at age 17 was offered a scholarship by Oregon State University in the United States. He began his studies at Oregon State in 1974 and received a Bachelor Degree in Mathematics in 1977. He then moved to the Washington, D.C. area and received a Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering from George Washington University in 1981 and a second Master’s Degree in Applied Mathematics from the University of Maryland in 1986. During the same period of time he received another Master’s Degree from George Washington University, this time in Ocean, Coastal and Marine Engineering. He worked for a period of time as a civil engineer in Maryland and Wyoming. Philip Emeagwali in 1987 was accepted into the University of Michigan’s Civil Engineering doctoral program and received a doctoral fellowship.Emeagwali earned a Ph. D. in scientific computing from the University of Michigan in 1993 he worked on advanced formulas in networked computers.

Memberships

Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics; Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Computer Society; Association for Computing Machinery; American Society of Civil Engineers; American Meteorological Society; National Technical Association, advisory board; American Physical Society; Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers; Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society; National Society of Black Engineers; National Society of Professional Engineers; Society of Technical Communication; American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; National Aeronautic Association; National Space Society; Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association; U.S. Parachute Association; Balloon Federation of America; National Air & Space Museum; Underwater Explorers Society.

Career

Various engineering duties, Maryland State Highway Administration, 1977-78; researcher, George Washington University, 1979-82; researcher, National Weather Service, University of Maryland, 1984-86; civil engineering and research mathematics duties, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 1986-87; researcher, University of Michigan, 1987-91; research fellow, University of Minnesota, Army High Performance Computing Research Center, 1991-93; independent consultant, 1993-. Concurrent positions: science consultant, PBS Futures TV Service, Meteorological Episode; advisory board member, National Technical Association.

Life’s work

Philip Emeagwali (pronounced eh-may-ah-gwah-lee) conducts research on internet and supercomputing technologies, targeting applications that benefit petroleum engineering, weather forecasting, and global warming. His knowledge of massively parallel programming (using thousands of processors) was mostly self-taught, and in 1989, he performed the world’s fastest computation of 3.1 billion calculations per second. Emeagwali used previously unaccepted technology that became the standard for supercomputers. Emeagwali also invented a method utilizing supercomputers that enabled oil companies to extract more petroleum from oil fields. The U.S. government had considered this problem among the twenty most difficult in the computing field.

Court case and the denial of degree

Emeagwali studied for a Ph.D. degree from the University of Michigan from 1987 through 1991. His thesis was not accepted by a committee of internal and external examiners and thus he was not awarded the degree. Emeagwali filed a court challenge, stating that the decision was a violation of his civil rights and that the university had discriminated against him in several ways because of his race. The court challenge was dismissed, as was an appeal to the Michigan state Court of Appeals

MACHINE CONNECTION

The Connection Machine was the most powerful supercomputer in the world. It is a complex supercomputer, briefly, to program it requires an absolute understanding of how all 65,536 processors are interconnected. The processing nodes are configured as a cube in a 12-dimensional universe, although we only use it to solve problems arising from our three-dimensional universe.
To perform the world’s fastest computation, he divided and evenly distributed the calculations among the 65,536 processors and then squeezed the most performance from the each processor. It took him 1057 pages to describe the hundreds of mathematical equations, algorithms and programming techniques that he invented and used. The details would be of interest to mathematicians and super computer nerds only. This discovery helps analyze petroleum fields and does massive calculations.

Set and Broke World Record

Emeagwali actually set the world’s fastest computational record on the Connection Machine a year before it was published. Before announcing his results, he broke his own record several times. “Each time I broke my record,� he recalled online at Emeagwali.com, “I would start screaming like a madman and people will run to my computer laboratory and inquire what went wrong.� He used 65,000 separate computer processors to perform 3.1 billion calculations per second, setting the record in 1989. His accomplishment gave way to other scientists’ understanding the full capabilities of supercomputers and the benefit and practical use of linking several computers to communicate. For this, he is known as “[a] father of the Internet,� according to CNNfyi.com. While on tour in Nigeria, President Bill Clinton praised Emeagwali as one of the great minds of the Information Age, according to White House transcripts, reiterating Emeagwali’s nickname as the “Bill Gates of Africa.�
For his record, Emeagwali earned the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of computing. Because of his engineering background, he was able to apply his technology to the petroleum industry. Massively parallel supercomputing enabled petroleum engineers to figure out how to recover more petroleum from oil fields. The problem was previously considered by the U.S. government to be one of the 20 most difficult problems in the computing field. According to Emeagwali, the process can save $400 million per oil field, which ultimately reduces the price of gas.
By 2001 Emeagwali turned his research to the structure of a global superbrain or “World Wide Brain� (WWB) he hoped would one day replace the World Wide Web (WWW). On Emeagwali.com, Emeagwali described the WWB as a digital superbrain that is [a] uniformly and intelligently connected international network of powerful computers that can take the Internet to the next level.� He speculated about its use in personal computers and in building even more powerful supercomputers to more accurately forecast global weather or for nuclear arms simulations. He suggested that future generations might be able to scan their brains onto the WWB to “attain digital immortality.� He considered the WWW to be the “larval stage� of the WWB and looked forward to its development into an “intelligent superorganism or ‘brain of brains.’�
In addition to his major professional accomplishments, Emeagwali values the paths he has forged for minorities in technology. “In society,� he said in an interview found online at Emeagwali.com, “my greatest accomplishment is that I have helped to destroy the stereotype that only whites are making contributions to cutting-edge science and technology.� He is pleased when he hears he inspired other minorities to study computer science.

Awards

Gordon Bell Prize, Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers’ Computer Society, 1989; Distinguished Scientist Award, National Society of Black Engineers, 1991; Certificate of Recognition, Mobil Corp. and U.S. Black Engineer Magazine, 1991, 1992; Computer Scientist of the Year, National Technical Association, 1993; Distinguished Visitor, Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Computer Society, 1993-96; Eminent Engineer, Tau Beta Pi National Engineering Honor Society, 1994; International Man of the Year, Minority Technology Council of Michigan, 1994; Certificate of Appreciation Award, Science Museum of Minnesota, 1994.

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