By Musikilu Mojeed
November 7, 2010
Leading American computer experts, including the man after whom the prize he won in 1989 was named, have lately pooh-poohed claims by Nigerian American-based scientist, Philip Emeagwali, that he was one of the fathers of the Internet.
In 1989, Mr. Emeagwali won the $1,000 Gordon Bell Prize, which is awarded each year to recognise outstanding achievement in high-performance computing.
His award was for an application of the CM-2 massively parallel computer for oil reservoir modeling. Following the feat, Mr. Emeagwali proceeded to claim, for several years, that he was a father of the Internet; that he improved upon Isaac Newton’s laws of motion; that he owned the world’s first personal website; that American computer giant, Apple, uses the microprocessor technology he pioneered in its Power Mac G4 model, among many other claims.
But responding to separate enquiries by NEXT, some of the world’s leading computer experts said there was no truth in most of the claims that Mr. Emeagwali had propagated about himself over the years.
Gordon Bell, 76, a pioneer in high-performance and parallel computing for whom the prize won by Mr. Emeagwali is named, said the entry that earned the Nigerian scientist the award had nothing to do with the Internet.
“He was able to get time on the Connection Machine at the right time and run a large program of oil reservoir modeling,” Mr. Bell, a principal researcher with Microsoft Silicon Valley Research Group in San Francisco, said in an email to NEXT.
“The Internet is another thing. No evidence that he had anything to do with the Internet,” he said.
Mr. Bell, who provided the financial support for the annual Gordon Prize, is an influential fellow of the world’s two largest professional associations of computer experts – the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, and the Association for Computing Machinery.
But when asked whether he was aware of Mr. Emeagwali’s contribution to the evolution of the Internet, Mr. Bell said, “Not that any of my friends who worked on the Internet recall. His bio on Wikipedia is most interesting and in itself seems to be controversial,” he said, in reference to the Wikipedia article on the Nigerian scientist, which only stopped short of calling Mr. Emeagwali a liar.
“Apart from the prize itself, there is no evidence that Emeagwali’s work was ever accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, nor that it had any other lasting impact on the field of high-performance-computing or the development of the Internet. Neither does he hold any recognized patents for his results,” the article said.
Asked whether Mr. Emeagwali is qualified to be regarded as one of the great minds of the Information Age, Mr. Bell said,
“Like many of us, in each of our minds, we may all think of ourselves as “one of the great minds of the information age. The real question is does anyone else, besides our mothers, fathers, spouses, children, relatives, and friends think of us in this way?'”
Mr. Emeagwali is often celebrated in his native Nigeria and Africa as a computer genius who invented the Internet and is often listed among leading and globally respected icons such as Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, and novelist, Chinua Achebe. He was so well respected that he once got on the Nigerian stamp.
Although he is not known to have made any other contribution to science or invented anything since he won the Gordon Prize 20 years ago, Mr. Emeagwali travels around the world, giving speeches and portraying himself as one of the greatest scientists in the world.
Speaking during a visit to Switzerland in April 2009, Mr. Emeagwali said he was the first to program an hypercube “to solve a grand challenge defined as the 20 gold-ring problems in computing. That discovery, in part, inspired the reinvention of supercomputers as an Internet.”
He claimed that by his effort, he was able to set three world records and improve on Newton’s Second Law of Motion.
But of late, Americans and Nigerians alike have raised questions about the claims. Alan Karp, a principal scientist with Hewlett – Packard Laboratories, and one of the judges who selected the Nigerian scientist for the Gordon Bell prize in 1989, said Mr. Emeagwali’s claims were false and exaggerated.
In response to NEXT’s inquiries, Mr. Karp wrote, “To the best of my knowledge, the work he submitted for the Gordon Bell Prize had no influence on the Internet. The material he submitted for the Gordon Bell Prize did not address adjustments to Newton’s Laws.
“Many people programmed the Connection Machines, both the CM-1 and the CM-2 that Mr. Emeagwali programmed. To claim that sending emails programmed is misleading. The work Mr. Emeagwali submitted for the Gordon Bell Prize did not set a world record. In fact, another team produced better performance and better price performance that same year and was awarded the Gordon Bell Prize for performance.
“There were other hypercube machines in use before the CM-2, and others had programmed them to solve important problems. Today, a supercomputer is not a union of supercomputers communicating as an Internet. Individual supercomputers with proprietary internal networks do sometimes coordinate over the Internet, but the work Mr. Emeagwali submitted for the Gordon Bell Prize did not do this,” Mr. Karp said.