Philip Emeagwali

There’s quite a bit controversy around Philip Emeagwali and people dispute some of his claims about what he has achieved, such as inventing an internet, in his own words.

There’s no disputing however that he received the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize for an application of the CM-2 massively-parallel computer. The application used computational fluid dynamics for oil-reservoir modeling. Emeagwali’s simulation was the first program to apply a pseudo-time approach to reservoir modeling.

There’s also no dispute that there are usually many contributors behind inventions, that countries claim that in their country they have the mother or father of an invention and the black contributors, or indeed inventors may be excluded from the accolades.

Interview by: Mary Bellis

Part 1: Early Life of Philip Emeagwali – Supercomputers

Nigerian born Dr. Philip Emeagwali first entered the limelight in 1989, when he won the prestigious Gordon Bell Prize for his work with massively parallel computers. He programmed the Connection Machine to compute a world record 3.1 billion calculations per second using 65,536 processors to simulate oil reservoirs. With over 41 inventions submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Philip Emeagwali is making big waves in the supercomputer industry, amazing achievements only surpassed by an even more amazing life.

Q. About Nigeria – how do you envision your beginning affecting your end?

Philip Emeagwali – Nigeria is a West African nation of over 100 million energetic people. It is endowed with lots of natural resources but lacks human resources. It was recently ranked by the World Bank as the 13th poorest nation in the world. Due to financial reasons, I dropped out of school after eight years of formal schooling. During 1967-70 periods, my family was homeless. Sometimes, we slept in refugee camps, abandoned school buildings and bombed houses.

The hardship of living in a refugee camp made me psychologically strong. It is called learning from the school of hard knocks. It made me street smart. It equipped me with a greater sense of determination and vision.

Adversities such as, being homeless and going to prison has made many people stronger. Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X came out of prison stronger. The hardships that I encountered in the past will help me succeed in the future.

Q. You speak about the influence nature’s own creativity has had upon your science theories, how did this begin?

Philip Emeagwali – I have expertise in five different fields which helps me to easily understand the analogy between my scientific problems and those occurring in nature. First, I identify an analogous problem in nature and borrow from it. It is smarter to borrow from nature than to reinvent the wheels.

Q. Your education during your teenage years was outside of the school system, can you talk about that experience?

Philip Emeagwali – It was the toughest experience of my life. I dropped out of high school four times between the ages of 12 to 17. When I enrolled in college at age 19, I had a total of eight years of formal classroom education. As a result, I was not comfortable with formal lectures and receiving regular homework assignments. I preferred to study those subjects that were of interest to me.

I 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 my hometown, the famous commercial city of Onitsha, I gained a word-of-mouth reputation as an expert in mathematics, physics and astronomy and students came to consult me in these subjects.

Q. What brought about you leaving Africa?

Philip Emeagwali – I wanted to become a mathematician, physicist or astronomer. I could not study these subjects at the cutting-edge level in Africa. During the week that I arrived in the United States, I saw an airport, used a telephone, used a library, talked with a scientist, and was shown a computer for the first time in my life.

Today, I have access to a $55 million super computer while many African scientists do not have access to a personal computer. The greater opportunity enabled me to make important discoveries and inventions.

Q. Can you describe the Connection Machine and explain how it all worked?

Philip Emeagwali – The Connection Machine was the most powerful supercomputer in the world. It is a complex supercomputer and it will take forever to completely describe how it works.

Q. “In 1989, you won the coveted Gordon Bell Prize for your work with massively parallel computers. You programmed the Connection Machine to compute a world record 3.1 billion calculations per second using 65,536 processors to simulate oil reservoirs. This was done over the Internet. I was wondering how you choose or found the 65,536 computers to help you? ”

Philip Emeagwali – The 65,536 processors were inside the Connection Machine. I accessed the Connection Machine over the Internet. The Connection Machines owned by the United States government laboratories were made available to me because they were considered impossible to program and there was no great demand for them at that time. In fact, the national laboratories that purchased them were embarrassed because their scientists could not program them and they were hardly being used. The labs were happy that I was brave enough to attempt to program it and the $5 million computer was left entirely to my use. I was their human guinea pig.

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.

I am a mathematician who relies heavily on qualitative problem solving techniques. I studied the most influential scientists and inventors to learn what made them different from ordinary people and discovered that the most creative people in the world scored lower than expected in SAT and IQ tests and most only earned high school diplomas.

Henri Poincare, considered one of the world’s greatest mathematicians, had an extremely low IQ. Thomas Edison (electricity), Benjamin Banneker (clock, astronomical calculations), Garret Morgan (traffic light), Henry Ford (automobile) and Alexander Graham Bell (telephone) had 8th to 12th grade education. Bill Gates (Microsoft), Ted Turner (CNN), Bill Lear (Lear jet), Soichiro Honda (Honda cars), and Howard Hughes (Hughes aircraft) never earned a college degree.

These geniuses had average IQ but made the world a better place by using their intuition. The lesson that I learned from the greatest inventors and scientists is that I will invent and discover more things by de-emphasizing quantitative methods and using a multi-disciplinary, unorthodox, intuitive and nature-inspired approach.

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