I only discovered last year during a lecture on supercomputers that one of the disputed fathers of the Internet is an African! I could barely hide my excitement-why didn’t anyone whisper his name into my ear whenever I didn’t want to do my 5th grade Mathematics homework? Why isn’t one of Africa’s greatest achievers a household name?
Nigerian Phillip Emeagwali’s big breakthrough came with his work on the Connection Machine supercomputer to help analyse petroleum fields. Both a computer scientist and a geologist, his knowledge in the two fields enabled him to create an application on the CM-2 (supercomputer) for oil-reservoir modelling. Now the first thing you might be thinking is, what on earth has this got to do with the Internet?
Truth is, Emeagwali’s simulation was the first program to apply a pseudo-time approach° to reservoir modelling over a rudimentary Internet connection; he achieved performance of 3.1 gigaFLOPS. Before I lose you, this means the machine was able to compute 3.1 billion calculations per second-all this using just over 65,000 processors to simulate oil reservoirs. (By the way, as of today the fastest 500 supercomputers combine for 58.9 petaFLOPS of computing power!)
Emeagwali’s feat was interesting because at the time, the Connection Machine-owned by the US government and considered the most powerful parallel supercomputer at the time-was considered impossible to program. The 65,536 processors were interconnected with the processing nodes configured as a cube in a 12-dimensional universe (although used to solve problems in our three-dimensional world); in order to achieve the feat of fastest computation, Emeagwali divided and evenly distributed the calculations among the processors in order to achieve the most performance from each.
This had an impact on the field of high-performance computing which was beneficial in the development of the Internet as high-speed performance translates into elimination of downtime, consistent response time (even on high-volume websites) and portability of applications without having to rewrite the original software; for his work he was awarded the coveted Gordon Bell Prize from IEEE.
Emeagwali is also a big name in the science world for the invention of the hyperball computer network whereby numerous processing nodes are interconnected in a spherical structure; this is invaluable for weather (and global warming) forecasting.
I cannot tell Emeagwali’s story without adding a bit of biographical information to highlight the strength of this man; having dropped out of school during the Biafra war and fleeing to a refugee camp, he later self-taught himself Mathematics and Philosophy. Boy can we learn from this man!
There is no conclusion on whether Emeagwali deserves the title of Father of the Internet but the fact that his name is on the list is testament to his great achievements. Just for the record: Eng. Emeagwali just joined the list of my 324 role models. Till next week…
°An algorithm accounting for the variable compressibility and viscosity of gas with respect to time and pressure
The author is interested in emerging technologies and their impact on business and society. She is a postgraduate student in Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania (USA).Follow https://twitter.com/rwandalavender