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.
Many disputed claims
Mr. Karp also debunked another oft-repeated claim by Mr. Emeagwali that the prize he won was the Nobel Prize of computing.
We also sent a list of Mr. Emeagwali’s numerous claims, gleaned from his speeches, interviews, and articles, to Jack Dongarra, another widely respected American computer scientist, and a judge on the panel that awarded the Gordon Bell Prize in 1990.
But Mr. Dongarra, a professor at the Innovative Computing Laboratory at the University of Tennessee, simply carpeted the claims in a two-sentence response.
“This was over 22 years ago and I really don’t remember,” he said. “I would disagree with much of what you have written.”
Because his claims had bounced around for long without any major challenge, many people around the world believe them as true, and Mr. Emeagwali enjoyed celebrity status. And from time to time, he adds new layers to what many scientists now believe to be a pack of lies.
On his poorly designed website, Mr. Emeagwali claims he has been ranked number one in computing in the past five years. He looks forward to being named again in December this year, although he is not known to have done or be doing any work on the subject since the 1989 prize.
He also claimed, in a June 2007 interview with BusinessDay, that the Nigerian government was owing him for the investigation he conducted into the country’s diminishing resources. Yet, the last time he visited Nigeria was over 20 years ago.
He said his technology is being used to forecast the weather and to predict the likelihood and effects of global warming. At a point, he claimed he was working on a fibre optic cable for Africa that will make calls to the continent not to be routed through Europe. NEXT sent Mr. Emeagwali a 14-question inquiry on his claims. But his response did not address any of the questions.
“The most important questions, such as his twelve years of postgraduate education, Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion, discoveries and inventions, 41 patents [that he never claimed, he claimed 41 “patent claims”] and father of the Internet,” said Donita Brown, who responded on his behalf.
“For example, he will explain that “the internet” is to “an internet” what the supercomputer is to a computer. That is, both are equivalent technologies,” Ms. Brown added.
Mr. Emeagwali said he would provide details in two weeks.
Ms. Brown, who is Mr. Emeagwali’s wife, has double identities as well. She is widely known as Dale Emeagwali. But in correspondences and on her husband’s website, she is identified as Donita Brown.
For two weeks, NEXT had consistently made efforts to talk to Mr. Emeagwali on the telephone. But each time, a telephone operator would say he was not available. The four telephone lines on his website are usually diverted to the same operator.
On his Facebook page, Mr. Emeagwali listed +4402070787400 as his mobile line. But our checks indicated that it was a landline in the United Kingdom, which was again diverted to the same operator in Washington.
Mr. Emeagwali was of recent a subject of debate on Nigerian Internet discussion groups and the preponderance of opinion was that his claims were fraudulent.
“The debate’ on Emeagwali’s intellectual fraud has long been settled in the Nigerian cyberspace,” said one Moses Ochonu.
“Only the most fanatical Nigerian and African American sentimental (as opposed to a rational) investors in black scientific heroism still take the fool seriously,” Mr. Ochonu said.
In his own contribution to the debate, Ola Kassim, a former leader of Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation, said, “I have always stayed away from the Emeagwali controversy simply because I do not enjoy watching Nigerians/Africans pull each other down.
“However, there are some instances when we must speak up, or else the work of our true heroes – the genuine achievers become rubbished by association when the falsehoods perpetrated by some of us are finally discovered,” he said.
Mr. Emeagwali’s Internet self-promotion has earned him a lot of attention. He branded himself so well that he became subjects of CNN, BBC, and TIME magazine articles and was able to get on United Nation’s list of former refugees who have achieved special status within a community due to their achievements. He is also widely celebrated in Nigeria and America, where he is a consistent feature of the Black History Month.
In February 2005, Ebony magazine ran a Toyota advertisement describing Mr. Emeagwali as one of the founders of the Internet and as having a PhD; whereas, he never earned a doctorate because the University of Michigan did not find his dissertation good enough.
Responding to a NEXT inquiry regarding why it misrepresented Mr. Emeagwali to the world, Toyota simply dissociated itself from the Nigerian scientist.
“Toyota has no connection to Mr. Emeagwali and is not responsible for his credentials. In addition, Toyota had no involvement with a Gordon Bell Prize.'” said Mike Michels, the company’s vice president, communications.
Mr. Emeagwali was also once described by former President Bill Clinton as one of the great minds of the information age.
The U.S State Department would not comment on why Mr. Clinton described the Nigerian scientist in that way. It simply directed inquiries to the former president himself. Mr. Clinton’s office is yet to respond to NEXT’s questions as at the time of this report.