A Day in the Life of Philip Emeagwali

The following are answers to questions submitted by the Association for Computing Machinery, the oldest computer society.


Association for Computing Machinery: How did you arrive at your present job? What are the academic and other influences that affected your decision?

Emeagwali: It was a series of events that started with my father assisting me in my elementary school mathematics homework assignments. He insisted that I solve one hundred maths problems each day and within an hour. My early interest in mathematics lead to my current interests in massively parallel supercomputing, petroleum reservoir simulation and weather forecasting. I came to the United States in 1974 and I considered myself to be an applied mathematician. In 1989, my work in massively parallel computing was "discovered" by the IEEE Computer Society and Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics and both societies publicized and proclaimed my work to be of great importance and I became known as a computer scientist.


Association for Computing Machinery: How do you organize your typical day?

Emeagwali: I wake up at about 5:00 a.m. and immediately turned my computer on.

In the 1980s, I devoted my entire day to scientific research. Today, I divide my time between science and public intellectual discourse. I receive many email from Africans, especially Nigerians and South Africans

Today, I will work on an essay and interview on the emigration of African intellectuals to the more affluent western nations. I have recently been interviewed on brain drain by the Voice of America, National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corporation and I expect more interviews on this subject.


Association for Computing Machinery: How much time do you spend working?

Emeagwali: I work until I am too tired to work productively. I work from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., with a three or four hour exercise break. I work seven days a week but I wouldn't recommend others to do so.


Association for Computing Machinery: How do you get yourself to think creatively?

Emeagwali: I don't have a single all-important strategy. Each problem is different and requires a unique creative problem-solving strategy. In the 1970s and early 80s, my creative output depended on serendipity and meditation and my discoveries occurs on spur-of-the-moment. As I became older and more experienced, my creativity depends mainly on similarity. The reason is that my knowledge base is greater and see the similarity between what I am trying to solve to what has been solved in other fields. I also rely heavily on my intuition and my sixth sense and I look at the big picture.

I consider it far more important to spend 15 years solving one problem than to spend 15 weeks solving a trivial problem. Metaphorically speaking, I visualize myself as a hunter of lions and elephants instead of a hunter of deers and antelopes. The hunter that killed a lion with a spear is more courageous and respected than the one that killed 100 antelopes with a gun. That is why I focus on solving difficult problems in the computing field.

I also have my own personal scientific vision or distinctive, characteristic way of thinking and problem solving that distinguishes my work from that of others. Writers describe this as "finding your voice." As Polonius admonished: "To thine own self be true." I have my own unorthodox way of solving problems that may make some scientists uncomfortable but is true to myself. It is basically a fusion of mathematics, engineering, computing and few secret ingredients with a flame of love and inspiration. Therefore, my work cannot be, strictly speaking, be categorized as science, mathematics or computing. It is my unique "personal vision" that enables me to invent something new in which the whole is larger than the sum of the parts. When a research project is aligned with my personal vision, I work on it wholeheartedly and passionately.


Association for Computing Machinery: What is your problem solving strategy?

Emeagwali: The problem that I am always trying to solve is two-fold: sociological and scientific. Any African-American scientist that wants to last long and be successful in this field must understand that he (or she) is always trying to solve the "black problem" and the "scientific problem." The "black problem" is far more challenging than the "scientific problem."

Once I realized that racism is pervasive and deeply untrenched, I decided that if I can direct the wind of racism that I should at least adjust my sails by making myself visible, when necessary, and invincible to avoid getting arrows on my back. To avoid spending most of my time dodging arrows directed towards me, I try to reduce my visibility within the predominately white scientific community by not publishing, unless it is absolutely necessary. I prefer to remain invisible at scientific conferences by not using a name tag. I pretend to be dead but a few people will walk up to me and ask "Aren't you ..."


Association for Computing Machinery: What do you do to relieve stress?

Emeagwali: On a typical day, I might swim, play soccer or tennis. I have won a few local tennis tournaments. On Sundary mornings, I play soccer with my African and Caribbean friends


Association for Computing Machinery: Who is your hero or the person you admire the most, and why?

Emeagwali: There are several people that I admire for different reasons. I admire the colonial era African-American inventor Benjamin Banneker for his courage in challenging Thomas Jefferson on his views that blacks will not be capable of understanding what we now call high school geometry.

I admire Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila who ran barefooted over Rome's cobblestoned streets to become the first African to win the Olympic Gold medal (in 1960). Bikila inspired African runners who now dominate distance running. The lesson that I learned from Bikila is that life is a marathon journey, full of obstacles that must be overcome.

For a similar reason, many Africans students are inspired by the fact that I started from way behind but arrived at the top of the computing field. At the age of 19, I had only eight years of classroom education and didn't know how to dial the telephone. Fifteen years later, I was winning some of the most prestigious awards in science. Unlike Alan Turing, John von Neumann or Albert Einstein, I have travelled a longer and more difficult paths and overcame more obstacles to make my scientific contributions. Because I overcame more obstacles than the typical scientist, school children find it more inspiring to write an essay about my life than about the life of any other computer pioneer.


Association for Computing Machinery: What do you do to mentor those who work for you?

Emeagwali: I have an global audience in elementary, middle and high schools. Most are in African and the United States. An increasing number is coming from Europe, the Caribbean and Brazil. Each year, half a K-12 students study my work and I receive about a dozen email a day from students. If I am in town, I will reply their email. Because they did not expect a reply, reading my email is a pleasant surprise to them. Many will show my email reply to their teacher, friends and parents and some will invite to visit their schools.


Association for Computing Machinery: What negative event changed your life in a positive way?

Emeagwali: After mailing out 1,000 resumes and several unsuccessful job interviews, I learned one important lesson that they don't teach a black student in school: a white employers will always hired a lesser qualified white applicant and rationalize to themselves that the black applicant is not qualified.

By the mid-1980s, I had an impressive resume that included three graduate degrees and some working experience. However, several employers who practically offered jobs by telephone changed their minds after the interview. What I found most discouraging was those employers offered the same jobs that I was denied to a white males fresh out of their undergraduate schools.

Also in 1986, I had three graduate degrees and was employed as a civil engineer by the United States Bureau of Reclamation in Wyoming and paid $23,000 a year. A white engineer with similar qualifications will have been paid three times what I was earning. (In other words, I was paying an "invincible black tax" of $46,000 on a $69,000 job.) My supervisor, a white male, had only a high school education and I had to train him on how to use computers to make engineering calculations. Discouraged, I resigned after I completed my mandatory one year service.

I also became disenchanted about civil engineering and engineers and decide to become a computer scientist that solves difficult mathematical problems within the field of engineering. In this instance, a negative event forced me to change careers, make a lemonade out of lemons and, subsequently, become "a famous computer scientist" instead of a civil engineer that operates dams and hydroelectric powerplants in Wyoming.


Association for Computing Machinery: What event or decision in your life do you wish you can go back and change?

Emeagwali: None. Hindsight is 20/20. The bad decisions that I made in the past were good decisions that were based upon the information available to me at that time. Fortunately, I often make lemonade out the lemons that life gave me.

However, if I had the foresight that I had now, I will have escaped out of my native country of Nigeria in 1967 and, subsequently, avoided the 30 month civil war in which one million people died. The hardship that my family and I underwent will be difficult to describe to an American. We lived in refugee camps and stood in line for free foods. I once didn't eat for two whole days. We almost died from hunger. By the end of the war, I was a 15-year-old cook in the Biafran army --- a job that helped me survive the war.


Association for Computing Machinery: What values are most important to you and what do you value in others?



Association for Computing Machinery: What inspires, motivates, and gets you excited about your job on a daily basis?

Emeagwali: I have an large and growing audience in schools in Africa and the United States. Each day, I receive about a dozen email from people who believed that what I have accomplished has inspired and motivated them. To hear from my fans also inspires me to continue doing what I am doing. The boxer that is fighting before his hometown crowd is pumped up and difficult to defeat. The public has discovered me and I feel like the fighter that is fighting before his hometown fans.


Association for Computing Machinery: Can you provide us your biography?

Emeagwali: I have posted extensive biographical materials at emeagwali.com.


Philip Emeagwali's Website

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Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

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Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor