Structures, water, computers, languages and people (not necessarily in this order)

The story of Philip Emeagwali

I really enjoy reading biographies that sound like a story written by Dickens. The childhood of Philip Emeagwali is one of those. It seemed the dawn of a life destined for poverty in his native land of Nigeria. Unable to attend school, Philip spent most of his day in the public library studying maths and physics. After a period of study and general examinations, he decided to apply to colleges in Europe and the US and then was offered a scholarship by Oregon State University.

In the 1980s he worked as a civil engineer in Maryland and Wyoming, but his real success was yet to come. His work with parallel supercomputing to simulate the extration of oil, water and gas in reservoirs, led him to the Gordon Bell prize. Emeagwali has won several other awards and his achievements were quoted in a speech by Bill Clinton as an example of what poor but talented people can achieve when given an opportunity. Maybe Emeagwali is a media hype but there is something absolutely true in this story: self-education in maths, engineering or computing is the most effective way to pass the poverty line in many countries.

Here you have a short video of Emeagwali I found on YouTube.


  1. No wonder he is a media favorite, since his perfect "American Dream" story sells very well in the US. I didn't know about this guy, but I just read the following about him in Wikipedia:

    "Emeagwali studied for a Ph.D. degree from the University of Michigan from 1987 through 1991. His thesis was not accepted by a committee of internal and external examiners and thus he was not awarded the degree. Emeagwali filed a court challenge, claiming that the decision was a violation of his civil rights and that the university had discriminated against him in several ways because of his race. The court challenge was dismissed, as was an appeal to the Michigan state Court of Appeals."

    I guess you need to be rather combative to improve your life in such a phenomenal way.

  2. Oh, I did not know about that. It could be good for a Hoolywood script.

  3. Hi x m,
    So this is somehow linked to what we were discussing the other day, isn't it?
    The guy was an Engineer who had studied lots of maths and physics. Later in life he decided to focus more on computing, and it seems that he was succesful, even if he never got a degree in CS.
    Wouldn't it be a pity if his talent were wasted just because he doesn't have any degree in CS, and therefore any certification in that field?

  4. Obviously, to be a researcher you do not need any kind of certificate or licence so I hope no talented people are going to be wasted in the academic arena. Talent is more scarce than it could be thought and rules are made for the average nuts and bolts professionals.

    As you problably know, in the 1970's Computer Science degrees were not very popular and Software Engineering was not even invented. The effect of using mathematicians, physicists and such in the massive production of commercial software was as if you assigned a PhD in physics to design bridges. The physicists might understand the principles better than the engineers but their experience in building things and provide practical and fast solutions in real-world settings is null. Not by chance, the kernel of the open operating system Linux was built mainly by software engineers not pure scientists.

    From my point of view, science is not engineering, both are necessary but they play different roles. To create innovative algorithms is science, but to compare different solutions, choose one and justify it, develop a master plan, control costs, time and risks, sell your final product and maintain the versions is engineering. Should engineering actions affect the public interest, no doubt: the lead responsible engineers must be licensed.

  5. Ok, I'm starting to see your point a bit clearer now.