Shakuntala Devi was an Indian writer and mental calculator, popularly known as the “The Human Computer”. A child prodigy, her talents eventually earned her a place in the 1982 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records. As a writer, Devi wrote a number of books, including novels as well as texts about mathematics, puzzles, and astrology. Her Major Works include ‘Puzzles to Puzzle You’ and ‘Perfect Murder’. She also wrote what is considered the first study of homosexuality in India; it treated homosexuality in an understanding light and is considered pioneering.
This famous Indian mathematician and ‘Child Prodigy’ never attended school in her younger days, but grew up to become one of the greatest mathematicians and authored a number of books on mathematics.
Shakuntala Devi was born in Bengaluru, India, to an orthodox Kannada Brahmin family. Her father rebelled against becoming a temple priest and instead joined a circus where he worked as a trapeze artist, lion tamer, tightrope walker and magician. Her mathematical abilities were recognized by her father. There is an interesting anecdote about how he recognized it. At the age of 3, when she started playing cards with her father, he was surprised to find that she was winning all the games against him everyday. Suspecting some foul play, he began his “investigation” during which he realized that she was memorizing all the card numbers and their sequence as the game progressed in the initial rounds and with her memory power, she was able to predict the sequence of cards in the subsequent rounds in the same game and thus wait to pick cards strategically to help her win. Her father taught her mathematical operations like multiplication, division & square root and took her to his circus to demonstrate her quick calculation abilities & memory power to the crowds. As the word about her skills spread, she started doing road shows as well across the city. By the age of six she demonstrated her calculation and memorisation abilities at the University of Mysore.After a few more similar performances in a number of other institutes, she found success at Annamalai University at the age of 8, when she was finally acknowledged as a ‘child prodigy’.
Shakuntala Devi performed in a number of institutions, theaters and even appeared on television. On September 27, 1973, she appeared on the BBC show, ‘Nationwide’ with the popular Bob Wellings, who was stunned when she managed give the right answers to all the mathematical questions that he bombarded her with. Devi travelled the world demonstrating her arithmetic talents, including a tour of Europe in 1950 and a performance in New York City in 1976. In 1988, she travelled to the US to have her abilities studied by Arthur Jensen, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Jensen tested her performance of several tasks, including the calculation of large numbers. Examples of the problems presented to Devi included calculating the cube root of 61,629,875 and the seventh root of 170,859,375. Jensen reported that Devi provided the solution to the aforementioned problems (395 and 15, respectively) before Jensen could copy them down in his notebook. Jensen published his findings in the academic journal Intelligence in 1990.
In Rome, a calculating machine found one of her answers to be wrong. However, after re-checking the answer, the solution given by the computer was proven wrong and hers was established as right!
Ms. Devi held a Guinness World Record for her lightning-speed calculations. Among her distinctions was her ability to, given a date in the last century, mentally ascertain the day.
In 1977, she calculated the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in just 50 seconds. In 1980, she multiplied two 13-digit numbers given to her randomly by the Computer Department of Imperial College, London.
Awards & Achievements
1. Shakuntala Devi won the ‘Distinguished Woman of the Year Award’ in 1969, from the University of Philippines along with a gold medal.
2. In 1988, she was honored with the ‘Ramanujan Mathematical Genius Award’ in Washington D.C., conferred to her by the-then Indian Ambassador to US.
3. Her name was listed in the ‘1995 Guinness Book of World Records’ edition for her outstanding mathematical feat where she beat the world’s fastest computer at multiplying two thirteen digit numbers.
4. A month before her death, she was honored with the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ in Mumbai, in 2013.
In April 2013, Devi was admitted to a hospital in Bengaluru with respiratory problems. Over the following two weeks she suffered from complications of the heart and kidneys. She died in the hospital on 21 April 2013. She was 83 years old then. She is survived by her daughter, Anupama Banerji. On 4 November 2013, Devi was honoured with a Google Doodle for what would have been her 84th birthday.
She set up ‘Educational Foundation Public Trust’ to promote mathematical, astrological and philosophical studies in Bangalore.