Philip Emeagwali was born on August 23, 1954, in Akure, Nigeria, the son of James Emeagwali, a nurseâ€™s aide, and his 16-year-old wife, Agatha. In April 1967, he was withdrawn from school as his family hid in refugee camps during an ethnic cleansing in which 50,000 Igbos indigenes were killed. At the age of 14, he was conscripted into the Biafran army as a child-soldier in one of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts. After six months in the army, the civil war ended and he was reunited with his family. He attended school briefly and then dropped out again because his parents could not afford to pay his school fees.
He earned his first diploma from the University of London (through self-study) in 1973 and, subsequently, won a scholarship to Oregon State University. From 1977-93, he did graduate study, professional practice and academic research at Howard University (civil engineering), Maryland State Highway Administration (transportation engineering), George Washington University (environmental, ocean, coastal and marine engineering), United States Bureau of Reclamation (civil engineer), University of Maryland (mathematics), University of Michigan (scientific computing), University of Minnesota (supercomputing), and Army High Performance Computing Research Laboratory (research fellow).
For six years, he served as a distinguished lecturer of both the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (the world’s largest technical organization) and the Association for Computing Machinery (the oldest computer society). He has delivered many major lectureships all over the world, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO, Paris) and the International Congress on Industrial and Applied Mathematics.
In 1974, Emeagwali read a 1922 science fiction article on how to use 64,000 mathematicians to forecast the weather for the whole Earth. Inspired by that article, he worked out a theoretical scheme for using 64,000 far-flung processors that will be evenly distributed around the Earth, to forecast the weather. He called it a HyperBall international network of computers. Today, an international network of computers is called the Internet.
Initially his proposal to use 64,000 computers to form an international network was rejected by peers on the grounds that it would be “impossible.” Denied funding and employment for a decade, he quietly developed and wrote up his calculations in a thousand-page monograph which described the hypothetical use of 64 binary thousand — the equivalent of 65,536 — processors to perform the worldâ€™s fastest computation.
In 1987, an experimental hypercube computer with 65,536 processors became available at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the United States government’s prime nuclear weapons research center. Frustrated by their inability to program 65,536 processors to simulate nuclear blasts, the Los Alamos officials had a hunch to allow physicists simulating problems similar to theirs. Fearing that the Lab officials will not accept him if it was known that he was black, Emeagwali decided to submit his proposal remotely. The Lab officials approved his usage of its computers and he remotely programmed 65,536 processors in Los Alamos (New Mexico) while living in Michigan.
“It was his formula that used 65,000 separate computer processors to perform 3.1 billion calculations per second in 1989,” said CNN. “That feat,â€ CNN continued, “led to computer scientists comprehending the capabilities of supercomputers and the practical applications of creating a system that allowed multiple computers to communicate.”
Emeagwali’s discovery started making front page headlines and cover stories in 1989, a feat that is a rarity in science. [Time magazine reported that the odds of a scientist “becoming even a little bit famous are a lot worse than 5,000 to 1.”] The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 27, 1990) wrote:
â€œPhilip Emeagwali, who took on an enormously difficult problem and, like most students working on Ph.D. dissertations, solved it alone, has won computation’s top prize, captured in the past only by seasoned research teams â€¦ If his program can squeeze out a few more percentage points, it will help decrease U.S. reliance on foreign oil.â€
With his success, academic journals that formerly rejected his work began to sing his praises:
â€œThe amount of money at stake is staggering. For example, you can typically expect to recover 10 percent of a field’s oil. If you can improve your production schedule to get just 1 percent more oil, you will increase your yield by $400 million,â€ wrote the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize Committee in the academic journal Software (May 1990).
In the bimonthly news journal of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, mathematician Alan Karp wrote: “I have checked with several reservoir engineers who feel that his calculation is of real importance and very fast. His explicit method not only generates lots of megaflops, but solves problems faster than implicit methods. Emeagwali is the first to have applied a pseudo-time approach in reservoir modeling.â€ (SIAM News, May 1990)
His success in using 64 binary-thousand processors gave credibility and renewed interest in his formerly rejected proposal to use 64 thousand far-flung computers to forecast the weather for the whole Earth. Because the topology of his rejected international network of computers was similar to, but predated that, of the Internet, it was rediscovered and called an â€œidea that was ahead of its timeâ€ and â€œa germinal seed of the Internet.â€ For his contributions, the book History of the Internet profiled him as an Internet pioneer, was voted one of the twenty innovators of the Internet, and CNN called him “A Father of the Internet.”
A measure of his impact is that he was rewarded with the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize (supercomputing’s Nobel Prize) for his contributions which, in part, inspired the petroleum industry to purchase one in ten supercomputers.
Emeagwali’s use of 65,000 processors to perform 3.1 billion calculations, in part, inspired:
Apple Computer to use his multiprocessing technology to manufacture its dual-processor Power Mac G4, which had a peak speed of 3.1 billion calculations per second; IBM to manufacture its $134.4 million supercomputer, which had a peak speed of 3.1 trillion calculations per second; IBM to announce its plan to manufacture a 65,000-processor supercomputer, which will have a peak speed of 1,000 trillion calculations per second; and every supercomputer manufacturer to incorporate thousands of processors in their supercomputers. Each day, visitors to his Web site, emeagwali.com, view one billion bytes or the equivalent of one thousand books. Materials from his Web site are frequently reprinted in small newspapers across Africa.
Another measure of his influence is that one million students have written biographical essays on him — thousands wrote to thank him for inspiring them. President Bill Clinton called him a powerful role model for young people and used the phrase “another Emeagwali” to describe children with the potential to become computer geniuses.
Emeagwali considers himself to be “a black scientist with a social responsibility to communicate science to the black diaspora.” In other words, he has a dual sensibility of being deeply rooted in science while using it as a tool to remind his people in the Diaspora of where they have been and who they are.
Dubbed a “renaissance man” by the media, he is admired not just for his enormous scientific contributions but for his deep and broad knowledge of literature and the arts. The media contacts him, daily, for interviews on issues as diverse as brain drain to Islamic fundamentalism to the future of the Internet.
During his career, Emeagwali has received more than 100 prizes, awards and honors. These include the Computer Scientist of the Year Award of the National Technical Association (1993), Distinguished Scientist Award of the World Bank (1998), Best Scientist in Africa Award of the Pan African Broadcasting, Heritage and Achievement Awards (2001), Gallery of Prominent Refugees of the United Nations (2001), profiled in the book Making It in America as one of “400 models of eminent Americans,” and in Who’s Who in 20th Century America. In a televised speech, as president, Bill Clinton described Emeagwali as â€œone of the great minds of the Information Age.â€
His wife, Dale, was born in Baltimore, was educated at Georgetown University School of Medicine, conducted research at the National Institutes of Health and the University of Michigan, and taught at the University of Minnesota. In 1996, she won the Scientist of the Year Award of the National Technical Association for her cancer research. They both live near Washington, D.C. with their 11-year-old son.