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Philip Emeagwali

Philip Emeagwali
14 January 2009 | Personality Profiles

Hailed as "the Bill Gates of Africa" by then-president Bill Clinton, Philip Emeagwali is a war survivor and renowned pioneer of the supercomputer and the Internet. "The Web owes much of its existence to Philip Emeagwali," observed TIME magazine. CNN has called him "a father of the Internet."

He was born on August 23, 1954, in Nigeria. At an early age, he developed a love for mathematics and earned the nickname "Calculus." With two million others, Emeagwali fled persecution to the safety of Biafran refugee camps during Nigeria's 30-month civil war that began in July 1967, which killed one million people. He was conscripted into the Biafran army at age 14, won a scholarship to the United States at age 19.

In his adopted country, Emeagwali became fascinated with what he called the "HyperBall," a theorized supercomputer equivalent to an idealized Internet. He began programming in 1974 and because he could not find a research laboratory interested in his HyperBall, he conducted research alone for 15 years, delving deeply into the deep connections between motion, calculus, and computing.

In 1989, he shocked the computing industry by winning singlehandedly, as an unknown, the Gordon Bell Prize, considered the "Nobel Prize of supercomputing." He reformulated Newton's Second Law of Motion as 18 "grand challenge" equations and algorithms and then re-created those as 24 million algebraic equations. By programming 65,000 processors to work as one seamless unit, he solved those 24 million equations at a speed of 3.1 billion calculations per second, setting three world records and garnering international headlines.

This discovery that 65,000 processors can solve a grand challenge defined as the 20 gold-ring problems in computing, in part, inspired the reinvention of supercomputers as a union of vast numbers of processors communicating as an Internet. He is profiled in books on the history of the Internet because his discovery suggested a re-definition of the computer of the mid 21st century ¬ as "a device communicating as an Internet while computing with thousands of processors," instead of one.

By expanding the limits of computing, Emeagwali has helped to move humanity forward into the age of information, which prompted president Bill Clinton to extol him as "one of the great minds of the Information Age."

In his native Nigeria, he is hailed as national hero, his likeness appearing on the nation's postage stamps and on the continent's music videos. He has been cited in numerous polls and lists of history's greatest black achievers, by publications ranging from New African to Ebony.

Emeagwali has won city-wide tennis tournaments. He is married to Dale, a prominent molecular biologist, and they have a son, Ijeoma, who is studying computer engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He travels from Washington, D.C.

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