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In 1974, Philip Emeagwali read a 1922 science fiction article about how to use 64,000 mathematicians scattered around the world to forecast the weather for the whole world. The theory intrigued him and 15 years later he developed a theory, the HyperBall International Network, to use 65,000 computer processors scattered around the world to forecast the world’s weather. His theory was later used in weather forecasting but more importantly, the HyperBall International Network is today known as the Internet.
Born in Nigeria in 1954, Emeagwali grew up poor in one of the poorest countries in the world. The son of James and Agatha Emeagwali, he lived the typical life of a Nigerian child until 1967 when he had to leave school because of the Nigeria-Biafara war.
From 1967 to 1970 his family was homeless. They hid in refugee camps, abandoned buildings, and bombed out homes during the ethnic cleansing in which 50,000 Igbos tribesmen were killed. “One of fifteen people in my hometown died in that 30-month war,” he said in a 2003 interview with jobpostings.net. “Both sides did not take prisoners of war; they did not want the expense of caring for prisoners.”
In 1968 he was conscripted into the Biafran army as a child solider. After six months, the civil war ended and he was reunited with his family. He returned to school, but later dropped out because his family could not afford his education.
Emeagwali was determined to fulfill his education. Being a witness to the destruction of his country gave him the resolve to continue studying. “I came out stronger from the civil war crisis,” he said, “I had self confidence and knew I had not fulfilled my potential.”
He continued to study at home and in 1973 he earned his first diploma from the University of London through correspondences courses.
Later that year he won a scholarship to Oregon State University, where he intended to study mathematics; he excelled in his graduate studies at Oregon State.
In 1974 he read a science fiction article on how to forecast the weather using 64,000 mathematicians. The theory intrigued him and he began work on a theory on how to use 65,000 far-flung processors to forecast the weather. He called this theory the HyperBall International Network. His theory was so advanced for its time that it was rejected by his peers on the grounds that it was impossible. Over the next decade he was unable to find work but he continued to work on his dream.
In 1987, Emeagwali submitted a proposal to gain access to the “Connection Machine” at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The “Connection Machine”, a supercomputer with 65,536 processors, was available because it was considered impossible to program and there wasn’t a great demand for its time. Los Alamos scientists had been unable to program the supercomputer and they were happy to give Emeagwali a chance to program it.
Unlike other researchers who had gone to Los Alamos to complete their work, Emeagwali didn’t go to Los Alamos to program the supercomputer because he was afraid that the lab officials would reject his proposal if they knew he was black. Instead he programmed the “Connection Machine” over the internet from his home in Michigan.
Emeagwali was successful in proving his theory.
Two years later CNN reported that his formula “led to computer scientist comprehending the capabilities of supercomputers and … a system that allowed multiple computers to communicate.”
His discovery was front page headlines. He was hailed as a genius and academic journals that had previously rejected his work scrambled to publish him. A year later the Journal of Higher Education wrote, “Phillip Emeagwali, who took on an enormously difficult problem … solved it alone…”
In 1989, Emeagwali won the Gordon Bell Prize, the Nobel Prize of the computing industry, and he has since won over 100 other prizes for his work.
His computations were applied to the oil industry, where it was estimated that they could increase an oil fields yield by $400 million a year and they have since been applied to global warming, astrology, and medicine.
The idea of the HyperBall Internatinal Network was hailed as “an idea ahead of its time.” The theory predated the Internet and was later called “a germinal seed of the Internet.” Emeagwali was voted as one of the twenty innovators of the Internet and he has been called “A father of the Internet” by CNN.
His theories also have been used in personal computers. Apple computer uses his multi processor technology in its Power Mac G4 and companies around the world have applied his work in the desk top and network server multi-processor technologies.
Emeagwali is known for more than just his mathematical calculations; he has been called “a black scientist with a social responsibility.” He has a broad knowledge of literature and the arts, and he has been interviewed on many subjects outside of computing.
He is also known for his commitment to his community. Emeagwali speaks regularly to high school and junior high school classes about his life and how important it is for them to stay in school. He has been frequently quoted about the need to increase the number of minority scientist in America. “The young minority possesses the same qualities as the young majority. What needs to be changed is the prejudice of people in the workplace.”
Philip Emeagwali: child solider to world renowned scientist; an African American making history in our world.