Quietly working in a U-M lab, grad student Philip Emeagwali has pulled off a prize-winning feat in supercomputing. Steve Eisenberg reports for the April 26, 1990 issue of the Ann Arbor News (Michigan, USA)



The high school physics teacher was stumped. He stood at the front of the class, staring at the blackboard, not sure how to finish the problem. Within moments, Philip Emeagwali walked forward, grabbed the piece of chalk from the teacher's hand and figured it out.

"He could always challenge the instructor," says fellow classmate Peter Ozoh, 36, now a chemical engineer at Hercules Aerospace in Desoto, Kan.

About 20 years after that day in Nigeria, Emeagwali is still amazing people. The 35-year-old graduate student at the University of Michigan has won one of the nation's most prestigious awards in the computing field, the Gordon Bell Prize.

Emeagwali has programmed a computer to work faster than any other computer --- at a rate of 3.1 billion calculations each second --- to solve one of the nation's 20 most difficult computing problems: understanding how oil flows underground so companies could extract the most"Texas gold."

Typically, oil is trapped within rocks --- like water in a drenched sponge --- and oil companies can remove only 5 percent to 50 percent. Now, simulations of oil fields, which help track the viscous stuff, will take seconds, instead of hours, to produce on a computer. In addition, the increased accuracy may boost the available amount of oil by a few percentage points, Emeagwali says.

"He has made a significant accomplishments in a computer science sense," says Alvis E. McDonald, a research scientist who simulates oil fields at Mobil Research and Development Corp., in Dallas.

Emeagwali not only was the award's first solo winner --- usually, teams from corporations and national laboratories capture the $1,000 check --- but he's also considered a novice in the field. When he won the award in late February, only eight months had passed since he first used a relatively new type of computer that helped him clinch the award.

Like other supercomputers, the Connection Machine, which is made by Thinking Machines Corp., in Cambridge Mass., solves problems in minutes that would take years on a desktop personal computer. The Connection Machine, however, operates differently from its competitors --- most notably, those made by Minneapolis-based Cray Research Inc., which commands 70 percent of the market.

Many researchers believe the Connection Machine is more difficult to use and can solve only specialized problems. In fact, when Emeagwali told his colleagues he had attained his prize-winning speed, they doubted him.

"When he told me about the results, I thought he had made a mistake," says William Martin, director of the U-M's Laboratory for Scientific Computation, where Emeagwali spends about 13 hours daily, including weekends.

The prevailing skepticism forced Emeagwali to enter the contest. "I wanted to see if the judges agreed with me," he says in a soft voice. "Now, all of a sudden, the award gives me credibility --- scientific credibility."

As a result, some one-time doubters are changing their mind about the Connection Machine and wonder whether it should be used more widely.

"Accomplishments like Philip's are going to make other researcher's realize Connection Machines are not a gimmick and not a toy and are useful in real-life problems," says Rick Kufrin, an applications programmer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

Emeagwali, who will receive a doctoral degree in civil engineering and scientific computing this June, always has been a math whiz.

When growing up in Onitsha, Nigeria, he was tutored by his father, James, who worked as a nurse.

The elder Emeagwali loved math because one of his high school roommates, Chike Obi, became the nation's premier mathematician, receiving his doctoral degree from Cambridge University in England and soon becoming a household name.

"My father admired him and talked very fondly of him," the younger Emeagwali recalls. "He was sort of like our Einstein."

Until the sixth grade, the elder Emeagwali taught his son mathematics in the evenings. "He gave up because he said I knew more than he did," the younger Emeagwali recalls.

During junior high school, his classmates considered him a math genius, says Ozoh, the aerospace engineer from Kansas.

He helped his friends solve problems and soon picked up the nickname, "Calculus," although none of the students knew anything about the college-level math. Emeagwali, meanwhile, had mastered the subject by age 14, with the help of library textbooks.

"They considered me a genius, but that's a relative term," he now says.

After finishing eighth grade, Emeagwali, then 14 and the oldest of nine children, dropped out because his father no longer could afford to send all of them to school. He continued studying on his own, however, and passed a college entrance exam, deciding to attend college in the United States. When he was 17, he landed a scholarship at Oregon State University.

After receiving an undergraduate degree in mathematics --- usually working two jobs along the way --- Emeagwali earned a master's degree degree in civil engineering at George Washington University. There, he studied how to design dams because water supply problems were plentiful in the Third World, where he was thinking about working.

"I like to work on problems that are important to society because you get satisfaction," he says. "Research is hard work, so you might as well work on important research."

Before coming to the U-M in 1987, Emeagwali chalked up two other master's degrees --- one in mathematics and another in ocean, coastal and marine engineering --- and then worked two years in Casper, Wyo., as a civil engineer. Emeagwali always wanted to get a doctoral degree.

"I was taught by my father that it was impressive to have. But my father taught it was so impressive that I wouldn't get one," he says. "So when I told him I would get one, he told me to shut up because he thought I was bragging too much."

At U-M, Emeagwali had one goal: to increase computer speed so it would be possible to determine how fluid --- water or oil --- flows underground.

During the next few years, Emeagwali, who never has had an official academic adviser, floated among several departments, picking up tidbits of knowledge along the way.

"To be real honest, I thought he was getting caught between the cracks," says Trevor Mudge, director of the U-M's advanced computer architecture laboratory.

Soon, Emeagwali was trying several types of computers and decided to give the Connection Machine a shot.

"I'm more confident in pursuing ideas that are not very well accepted," he says. "I'm one of the first persons crazy enough to try it."

At the time, the Connection Machine, which was developed in 1986, had a poor reputation. Typically, researchers needed a year to learn how to use it, and its software was scarce.

Says Emeagwali: "People were skeptical and underestimated what the machine could do. I didn't want to be discouraged so I decided to work alone," using telephone lines to tie into four different machines around the country.

The Connection Machine operates completely differently than conventional supercomputers do. Rather than sending reams of data, such as thousands of number pairs, through a few high-power computer units, or processors, to be added one pair at a time, the Connection Machine assigns each pair to more than 65,000 less advanced processors --- each comparable to a desktop computer --- and the program instructs the calculations to occur simultaneously.

Just picture the conventional supercomputer as eight oxen pulling a cart and the Connection Machine as about 65,000 chicken pulling the same cart.

"The old thinking is that the oxen will do a better job, but if the chicken coordinate their efforts, then they'll do a better job," Emeagwali says.

For his doctoral dissertation, Emeagwali wanted to simulate an oil field, which isn't just a huge, underground cave. Instead, oil is found in pores within rocks, and oil companies must pump gas or water into fields to force the oil to nearby wells.

It then gets trickier. If oil is sucked out too quickly at one well, then oil elsewhere may not flow naturally to the same well and is virtually trapped --- that is, until another well is drilled, at considerable expense.

That's why it's important to understand flow within oil fields. In addition, the models help determine how many barrels are removable.

For his computer program, Emeagwali modified mathematical equations, first derived in 1938, and then divided the oil field into 8 million points, assigning 128 points to each of the Connection Machine's 65,536 processors --- figuring that more points provide better results.

Then, the computer program instructed each each point to talk with six neighbors simultaneously, which was a key in Emeagwali's success, and determined the oil's amount, direction of flow and speed at each point. For the entire oil field --- all eight million points --- the calculations took one-sixth of a second, which mimics a few hours of actual oil flow.

Other computer programs for simulating oil fields take longer, Emeagwali says, and they're not as accurate because the field points aren't distributed equally and are fewer in number.

Emeagwali's accomplishments are important, says McDonald of Mobil Research and Development Corp. During the time saved, "we could do more engineering studies on other oil fields, which saves both time and money," he says.

While the Connection Machine performed 3.1 billion calculations each second in Emeagwali's problem, one of the Cray supercomputers has produced only 1 billion calculations with similar problems.

By the mid-1990's, Emeagwali, who wants to pursue an academic career, expects to achieve 1 trillion calculations each second.

Emeagwali works hard --- typically 13 hours a day --- but takes time out for his favorite sport, tennis. He's an avid player, and last year, he was runner-up in the finals of Ann Arbor's Men's B-class tennis tournament, beginning as an unseeded player.

Philip Emeagwali won a computing prize usually captured by corporations or national laboratories. "I'm confident in pursuing ideas that are not very well accepted,' he says.

"In tennis, people underestimate me because I don't hit the ball hard," he says. "I make them beat themselves by identifying their weaknesses."

Emeagwali's wife, Dale, doesn't mind his demanding schedule. She also works long hours as a molecular biologist at the U-M medical school.

Sometimes, however, he's so busy concentrating on his research that he forgets things that she has told him. "He's an absent-minded professor type," she says.

Until last week, Emeagwali hadn't even deposited his $1,000 check for the Gordon Bell Prize. "I get so engrossed in what I'm doing that I'm too busy to do things like that," he says.

Emeagwali, however, isn't too busy for his family.

Since the mid-1980s, he has sent for seven of his brothers and sisters and also his mother from Nigeria. They're all living in the Washington, D.C., area, where five attend the University of Maryland and two are in high school. Another sister is still in Nigeria. His father, meanwhile, is retired and is expected to move to the United States this summer.

  Computer Wizard

  Emeagwali Puts Math to Work in Real World

  Top computing prize goes to a University of Michigan Ph.D. candidate

  The Ways of Counting

  Grad Student Wins Top Supercomputer Award

  One of the World's Fastest Humans

  Philip Emeagwali wins 1989 Gordon Bell Supercomputing Prize

  U-M Researcher wins Gordon Bell Prize

  Brain to Brain (Detroit Free Press)

  New Stars Emerging in Adult Tennis Tourney

  Award Winner Cites NSFNET Reliability

  The answer is in the wind

  Please visit for the most recent list.

In Nigeria, it's very common for the oldest brother to look out for the rest of the family, says Edith Emeagwali, 29, who will be graduating from Maryland's nursing school next week.

"He's the most intelligent person in the family, and we're all trying to follow in his footsteps," she says.

Winning the computing award, however, "will be a tough act for us to follow," she says.Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

Reported in the Ann Arbor News of Michigan, USA on April 26, 1990.

Click on this icon to

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

Click on for more information.
Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor