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Superbrain of Africa

He's developed the world's fastest computer --- and that's just the beginning




Emeagwali

He left school in Standard 8 and lived with his family in a refugee camp. But Nigerian Philip Emeagwali is now regarded as one of the world's best scientific brains --- a man who has won truckloads of awards and is worth a cool R200 million ... Tim O'Hagan reports from Cape Town, South Africa [Published in DRUM (Africa's leading magazine) on March 19, 1998].

THE 8-year-old boy sat in his family's lounge and stared at the small alarm clock his dad had put in front of him.

He was furious because his friends were playing soccer outside, and he had to sit here for the next three hours.

``Are you ready?'' asked his father. ``You have 60 minutes to answer the next 100 questions.''

Young Philip Emeagwali nodded. He knew he had just 36 seconds to answer each question. It was not enough time to write the answers down, so he'd have to calculate them in his head.

Philip's father started firing questions at him. "Mohammed averaged 88 per cent in three mathematics tests. In the first test he got 92 per cent. In the second he got 94 per cent. What per cent did he get in the third test?" The little boy thought hard and answered fast.

For three long hours the questions came, and at the end of each hour Philip had answered another 100 questions - and he got most of them right.

James Emeagwali smiled proudly. He knew his son was no ordinary boy, and that in spite of his poverty, he would grow up to become someone important.

[Philip Emeagwali]

Philip Emeagwali with some of the computers he works with.



TODAY Philip Emeagwali, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan in America, is spoken as "the Bill Gates of Africa" --- and his personal worth has been estimated at R200 million.

From a poor youngster in rural Nigeria he grew up to become what the American magazine Michigan Today described as "one of the world's fastest humans".

He won this recognition and America's most influential prize for computing genius --- the Gordon Bell Prize --- for writing the formula that would enable a computer to make 3,1 billion calculations a second. The formula enabled the American oil industry to tap into huge reserves of underground oil, and contributed billions of dollars to the government's oil-exploration programmes.

In addition he has amassed university degrees in five different fields and his wealth has enabled him to bring 18 relatives to America from Nigeria.

Philip grew up in the commercial city of Onitsha in south-eastern Nigeria where his father was a nurse. At school he was so bright he was able to answer questions before his schoolfriends had even written the questions down. Teachers and classmates, amazed at his extraordinary ability, called him `Calculus,' because he was so good at calculating -- or working out -- sums. But others were jealous and accused him of using magical powers in his mathematics examinations.

"Some of them didn't even know my real name," he laughs. "To this day, if I hear someone call me 'Calculus,' I know without looking it's an old friend from home.''

By the time Philip got to Standard 4 teachers and classmates considered him a maths wizard who could solve advanced problems in geometry, trigonometry and algebra.

"My classmates would introduce me to their friends as a maths genius and my teachers spoke of me as the young Chike Obi --- a mathematical genius who made a name for himself in Nigeria.''

One day, Philip's maths teacher stood at the front of the class, staring at the blackboard, unsure how to solve a difficult problem. Philip walked forward, grabbed the piece of chalk from the teacher's hand and wrote the answer on the blackboard.

[Philip Emeagwali's Reservoir Equations]

The mathematical formula Philip wrote which won him America's top award for computing genius.


"He could always challenge the instructor," says fellow classmate Peter Ozoh (43), a chemical engineer at Allied Colloids in Suffolk, Virginia, America.

When he was in Standard 4 his headmaster let him teach mathematics classes whenever his teacher couldn't be there.

But there were times when Philip's genius worked against him. In 1965 at the age of 10 he was accused of cheating in a mathematics entrance examination to Saint Georges Grammar School in the Nigerian town of Obiaruku and denied admission.

The reason? -- he finished the one-hour examination in five minutes and scored 100 per cent, while the next highest score was 57 per cent. The school did not believe that a 10-year old was capable of such a feat. In spite of his genius for mathematics, Philip had to leave school in Standard 8, because his father could no longer afford the school fees.

But back home, his father continued teaching him. Eventually James Emeagwali had to stop teaching his son, because Philip knew more than he did. As a result, the pre-teenager studied on his own to finish high school and to earn a General Certificate of Education from the University of London.

What makes Philip's achievements even more extraordinary is that his family had to flee Nigeria during a civil war.

"We slept in refugee camps, abandoned school buildings and bombed houses. We stood in long lines to receive food from charity organisations," says Philip.

"But the hardship of living in a refugee camp made me psychologically strong. It made me street smart. It equipped me a greater sense of determination and vision."

At the age of 17 he won a scholarship to Oregon State University in America, where he studied maths. After that he went to George Washington University, where he was awarded two masters' degrees: one in civil and environmental engineering and another in ocean, coastal and marine engineering.

He was also awarded a master's degree in mathematics from the University of Maryland.

He has worked as a civil engineer in constructing traffic highways in Maryland and operating hydroelectric dams in Wyoming and today is a consultant in supercomputing, internet and information technology.


BEHIND Philip's success is a radical new computer he programmed to solve important problems. It's called the Connection Machine, and the reason it's being applauded worldwide is that it can work faster and do more work than any computer on Earth.

Philip got his idea for programming the Connection Machine by watching bees build their honeycombs. No other creatures on earth work more efficiently that a community of bees building a honeycomb, he thought. So why not program a computer that uses thousands of other computers (like bees) to work? So instead of using a single huge computer the size of a luxury car to do all his work, Philip used the Internet to connect to 65000 smaller computers.

This way he found his computer could do an amazing rate of 3,1 billion calculations a second -- three times the speed of the previous Gordon Bell prize winner --- and set a new world record.

The computer works on the principle that it's more powerful to have 65,000 chickens pull an ox wagon than eight oxen.

Having established the fastest computer on Earth, Philip started putting it to work. He wanted to solve one of the nation's 20 most difficult problems: understanding how oil flows underground so companies could extract the most oil in the cheapest and easiest way.

Typically, oil is trapped within rocks --- like water in a drenched sponge --- and oil companies can remove only five per cent to 50 per cent.

Philip and his computer found a way to get much more oil out of the ground -- a discovery regarded by oil companies and the United States Government as a world breakthrough which would enrich the nation by billions of dollars.

Now his supercomputer is being used not just to find oil but for several other major international projects, such as improving the accuracy of weather predictions, explaining the unsolved mysteries of science, tracking the flow of blood in the human heart, calculating the movement of buried nuclear waste, tracking the spread of AIDS, and determining the long-term effects of gases in the air and how the heat of the sun is burning up the Earth.

Philip has received dozens of awards for his pioneering work, a tribute to his extraordinary contribution to science.

This year he was awarded Africa's largest scholarly prize, the Nigeria Prize, by the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Last year the National Society of Black Engineers in the United States awarded him the title Pioneer of the Year. In 1991 the same society voted him Scientist of the Year.

He has also been voted Africa's Best Scientist, America's Best & Brightest Inventor in 1996, and the Computer Scientist of the Year by America's National Technical Association in 1993.

Other awards include Nigerian Achiever of the Year (1994); Distinguished Scientist Award, by the National Society of Black Engineers in America (1991); Distinguished Eagle Achievement (1996); Distinguished Visitor Award, presented by the the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (1993-1996).

In 1995 the National Technical Association placed him among America's top six scientists. But the crowning glory of Philip's career was the Gordon Bell Prize presented to him by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1989.

Regarded as the computer world's Nobel Prize, it set him among the ranks of the world's best brains, and gave him the recognition his father always knew he deserved.


PHILIP attributes his success to his Igbo background in south-east Nigeria and a spirit of adventure, qualities he wants to pass on to his young son.

"My son is going to encounter racism in the US which will deny him the opportunity to contribute as much as he can to society," he says.

"I want him to be inspired by the fact that I was a high school drop-out and ex-refugee who overcame racism and made scientific contributions that benefited mankind.

"I like to invent things that help many people," he says. "Research is hard work, therefore, I only work on important scientific problems."

Philip is a workhorse - working 13-hour days seven days a week. But his wife Dale, a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, doesn't mind his long hours -- she also has a demanding working week and was voted the 1996 Scientist of the Year by America's National Technical Association.


[Dale and Philip Emeagwali]

Philip with his wife, Dr. Dale Emeagwali.


But sometimes Philip's so busy concentrating on his work he forgets other things.

He even forgot to deposit the R5 000 he won for the Gordon Bell Prize. "I get so involved in what I'm doing that I'm too busy to do things like that," he says.

But this absent-minded professor is never too busy for his family. During the past fourteen years he has brought 18 relatives including his parents from Nigeria.

They now live in Washington DC area, where five brothers and sisters graduated from the University of Maryland and two are in school.

His sister Edith, who serves in the United States navy as a registered nurse said: "Philip's the most intelligent person in the family, and we're all trying to follow in his footsteps."

For Philip, a positive attitude and lots of hard work has proved a winning recipe. "Life is a journey and we should spend the early years preparing for it. To become a scientist required many years of education. I never accepted defeat. I kept trying," he says.


DOES he have any advice for South African parents who want their children to do well in life?

"We must ensure that our children are properly educated. When we invest in our children, we will find that our standard of living grows, too. We should invest in education and technology not because it is easy, but because our children will be the beneficiaries tomorrow of the decisions, we adults, make today.

"Investing in education and technology will be our legacy to our children; because it will bring the best out of them as well as all Africans and enable us to reach our potential as individuals, as communities, as a people."

Philip told DRUM it required a lot of hard work, perseverance and dedication for an African to become successful in Europe or North America.

"Successful Africans help break the negative prejudices against Africans and inspire the younger generations of Africans to accomplish more.

"Studying abroad makes it easier to become successful abroad. When I got to America I was amazed at the level of technological development there. In one day 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. Not in my wildest dreams did I expect to be recognised as a contributor to American technology."


You can contact Philip Emeagwali on his internet address http://emeagwali.com





Reported in DRUM, Africa's leading magazine, on March 19, 1998.


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