The Calculator : Shakuntala Devi

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We’re all familiar with the name of Shakuntala Devi. An outstanding prodigy of India, she displayed the skills of calculating difficult mathematical problems from a very tender age. Belonging to a very humble family, Shakuntala Devi demonstrated her calculating skills at the University of Mysore when she was just six years old. By the time she was eight, she had proved herself worthy of great successes by showcasing her ability at the Annamalai University too.

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In 1977, she calculated the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in just 50 seconds. In the same year in USA, she competed with a computer to see who gives the cube root of 188132517 faster, she won. Problems that took learned men hours to solve, she could solve within seconds. On one instance at the University of Rome one of her answers to the given problems was found to be wrong by the calculating machine, but after re-checking it was found that the machine had made the mistake and not the talented woman.

Dr Govindarajan, Head of Department of Mathematics of D G Vaishnav College said that she “was the authentic heroine of the 20th century. Her mathematical genius is unparalleled.” Unlike many other calculating prodigies, such as Truman Henry Safford, her abilities did not wane in adulthood and she continued to be a marvel in solving complex mathematical problems in a matter of seconds.

On June 18 in the year 1980, she demonstrated the multiplication of two 13-digit numbers 7,686,369,774,870 x 2,465,099,745,779 that were picked at random by the Computer Department of Imperial College, London. She answered the question in 28 seconds. However, this time is more likely the time for dictating the answer (a 26- digit number) than the time she required for the mental calculation. Her correct answer was 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730. This event is mentioned in the 1995 edition of the Guinness Book of Records. At Stanford University, in 1988, Shakuntala Devi calculated the cube root of 95,443,993 as 457 in merely 2 seconds. She also calculated the 8th root of 20,047,612,231,936 as 46 in 10 seconds. Then again, we must consider that the recorded time was the one she took to dictate the answer and not the time she required the calculate it, which most definitely must have been much faster than both 2 and 10 seconds.

Arthur Jensen, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, studied Shakuntala Devi’s abilities in 1988. His findings were published in an academic journal titled ‘Intelligence’, in 1990. In his report, Jensen wrote that her calculations were done and her answers were given even before he had time to write the same in his notebook. Jensen said that – “To all appearances, the prodigious numerical talent resides in a perfectly normal and charming lady”. “Devi comes across as alert, extraverted, affable, and articulate,” he added.

She was felicitated at renowned institutions for her calculating abilities and she received numerous awards for the same. She received the ‘Most Distinguished Woman’ of the year in 1969 at the University of Philippines, and a gold medal. At Washington D.C., she was presented with the ‘Ramanujan Mathematical Genius’ Award by the then-Ambassador of India in the USA, in 1998.

Shakuntala Devi had a vision to make learning of mathematics easy for children and she was the author of many mathematics and puzzle books such as ‘Fun with Numbers’ and ‘Puzzles to Puzzle You’. “Numbers have life, they’re not just symbols on paper,” she once said, the London Telegraph reported. In later years, she took on the astrological work of her ancestors, seeing up to a total of 60 clients per day in hotel suites across the globe. The fact that astrology is a numbers game was well understood by the talented calculator. Clients gave Devi a date of birth, time of birth and birthplace, and she answered three questions about their lives. She was also aware of what every great performer knows: how to connect with your audience and give it what it wants.

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She wrote ‘The World of Homosexuals’ in 1977. It was widely considered a pioneering move in conservative India, and it called for total acceptance of homosexuality in the country. It comprises of a collection of interviews of a male Canadian couple, two homosexual Indian men, a priest of a temple who expressed his personal views about homosexuality and a study of homosexuality in existing works of literature. She wrote many other books such as ‘Astrology for You’, ‘Book of Numbers’, ‘Figuring: The Joy of Numbers’, ‘In the Wonderland of Numbers’, ‘Mathability: Awaken the Math Genius in Your Child’, ‘More Puzzles to Puzzle You’, ‘Perfect Murder’ and ‘Super Memory: It Can Be Yours ‘.

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She performed at the universities of various countries. In India, she performed at Mysore University in Bangalore, Osmania University at both Hyderabad and Vizag, Annamalai University, Benaras Hindu University and many more. University of Leeds, Yorkshire, Kings College of London, Surrey, The University of London, The University of Manchester, The University of Birmingham were the major universities she performed at in England. She performed at various universities in the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan and numerous other schools too. In April 2013, Shakuntala Devi breathed her last in a hospital in Bangalore from complications of the heart and kidneys at the age of 83, and a prodigy passed to the other realm.

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