A Numerical Genius
Shakuntala Devi was a genius in numerical calculations who is very widely known as ‘human computer.’ Though she was not formally educated but she could perform calculations involving very large numbers in a few seconds without taking help of any man-made equipment. Her amazing computational skills are self-taught.
For example, in 1988, at the University of California-Berkeley, Shakuntala Devi calculated the cube root of 95,443,993 in 2 seconds, cube root of 204,336,469 in 5 seconds, and cube root of 2,373,927,704 in 10 seconds! The test was conducted by Arthur Jensen, who was then a professor of educational psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, but even he could not provide a satisfactory answer behind her astonishing computational abilities.
According to the report of a leading daily, she even calculated the 7th root of 455,762,531,836,562,695,930,666,032,734,375 (ans. 46,295) in 40 seconds.
Amazing Calculations and Speed
While exploring about Shakuntala Devi, one can come to know that in 1980, she was asked to multiply two 13-digit numbers at Imperial College London, which she did in 28 seconds! This unbelievable performance of hers got her a place in the 1982 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records.
In 1977, at Southern Methodist University in Texas, Shakuntala Devi computed the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds! Her answer was confirmed by a sophisticated UNIVAC 1101 computer with the help of a specially written program (for performing such a large calculation). The computer took more time than her to arrive at the solution. This extraordinary information needs to be highlighted in any good biography of Shakuntala Devi.
Shakuntala Devi also had an amazing capability in calendar calculations. For example, one could have given any date to her in the last century and she could almost instantaneously tell on which day of the week that date fell.
This out-of-the-world computational ability of hers is still an enigma among common people and in academic circles.
She was born on 4th November 1929, in Bangalore (now Bengaluru), which is the capital of Karnataka state of India. Her father was a performer in circus. The extraordinary talent of Shakuntala Devi to memorize numbers was discovered by her father when she was only three years old when her father was teaching her a card trick.
Her father left circus and started doing road shows where the calculation ability of Shakuntala Devi was demonstrated. The child prodigy was presenting her computational abilities at the University of Mysore, at the age of six.
Global Fame and Writing
She moved to London with her father in 1944. Shakuntala Devi travelled to several countries where she demonstrated her genius in arithmetic calculations. In 1950, she was on Europe tour. She came back to India in mid 60s.
Shakuntala Devi has authored several books on mathematical puzzles, children’s books and also novels and cookbooks. She also wrote a book on astrology titled Astrology for You. The Book of Numbers; More Puzzles to Puzzle You; Super Memory: It Can be Yours are some of her books. It speaks volumes of her talent and hard work that she wrote so many books without any formal education.
In her book Figuring: The Joy of Numbers she explained many of the methods she used to employ to do her mental calculations. However, despite her explaining it is not only difficult but almost impossible to arrive at the solutions through the long process within seconds, which the mathematician Shakuntala Devi used to do.
Sensitivity beyond Numbers
However, she proved that she was much more than a human computer when she wrote a book on a very sensitive subject with uncommon sensitivity. Her book ‘The World of Homosexuals’ was written in 1977 when homosexuality was not only illegal in India but also an extremely taboo subject. It would not be an overstatement to say that The World of Homosexuals was the first comprehensive study of homosexuality in modern India. The book demanded decriminalization of homosexuality.
In the documentary titled For Straights Only, she candidly said that her interest in exploring homosexuality was because of her marriage to a homosexual man and also because of her desire to examine homosexuality more closely to understand it. The landmark book has interviews with two Indian homosexual men. It also has inputs from a temple priest who explained his views on homosexuality, and review of the then existing literature on homosexuality.
Biopic on Her
In 2020, a biopic on the life of Shakuntala Devi was made. The name of the film is Shakuntala Devi. Noted Indian actress Vidya Balan played the role of Shakuntala Devi and the film was directed by Anu Menon. The film streams on Amazon Prime Video.
Shakuntala Devi died on 21st April 2013. She was suffering from respiratory, heart and kidney problems for some time. The age of Shakuntala Devi at the time of her death was 83. She had a daughter named Anupama Bannerji, who lives in London.
According to www.networthpost.org, the networth of Shakuntala Devi in 2018 was 7 million USD.
In 5th October 1950, she appeared in a BBC show where the host Leslie Mitchell gave her a complex maths problem to solve, which the magician with numbers did in seconds. But Leslie said the answer of Shakuntala Devi was incorrect. It was not the answer that the channel had. However, on cross-checking Leslie found that the answer of Shakuntala Devi was correct and the answer that the channel had was wrong. From that day the term Human Computer became synonymous with her.
She was married to Paritosh Banerji, who was an officer of the Indian Administrative Service from Kolkata.
In 1980, she contested Lok Sabha elections as an independent candidate from Medak (then it was in Andhra Pradesh, now it is in Telangana) against Indira Gandhi and lost miserably.
Her genius with numbers made her popularly known as ‘Human Computer.’