LITTLE-KNOWN PROFESSOR FINDS BIG-TIME ERROR IN BEST-SELLING COMPUTER CHIP
LYNCHBURG, VA. — Mild-mannered Thomas Nicely was content with his quiet life as a mathematics professor at little-known Lynchburg College, teaching freshmen and researching number theory.
Then he found a flaw in Intel Corp.'s top-of-the-line Pentium microprocessor and publicly embarrassed the world's largest computer-chipmaker.
Now he is enjoying - or at least tolerating - his moment of fame.
The story of his unlikely celebrity began in June, when he was working on some division problems and found his computer churning out faulty numbers, beginning with the ninth place to the right of the decimal point.
That may seem very minor, but ``to me, it was a huge error,'' Nicely says.
He checked and rechecked his own equation but found nothing wrong with it. He tried using computers at an office supply store. When the error surfaced there, too, he knew the problem was with the chip.
In fact, Intel knew it, too. The Santa Clara, Calif., company's technicians had detected the error in July, but the company did not publicize the flaw, because it thought only a few users would encounter the problem.
So when Nicely called Intel's technical support line in October, he was told that no one knew of the problem. He left messages and called back, but six days went by and he heard nothing.
That's when Nicely informed several colleagues, sending them his findings via electronic mail. One of the people he e-mailed posted the findings on the Internet, making them available to computer users around the world. ``Then suddenly I heard from Intel again,'' Nicely says, laughing. ``They seemed very anxious to please me at that point.''
Intel officials sent him two new chips, which he says have been running his research program flawlessly. The company also apologized publicly, although its replacement offer extends only to users directly affected by the flaw.
``He obviously knows his mathematics,'' Intel spokesman John Thompson says of Nicely. The company has discussed making Nicely a consultant.
Nicely, who has taught at Lynchburg since 1968, says he's surprised no one else discovered the bug . ``It indicates to me that a lot of people are not checking their work,'' he says.