At an age where most children are learning basic calculations, a young girl could calculate complex roots in a matter of seconds.
This child prodigy was Shakuntala Devi – the woman whose life was also the subject of Vidya Balan starrer biopic, Shakuntala Devi.
She was extraordinary, in every sense of the word! Know the story of the child prodigy & the human computer, #ShakuntalaDevi @sonypicsprodns @Abundantia_Ent @anumenon1805 @vikramix @SnehaRajani pic.twitter.com/P2PAqPp5Tt— vidya balan (@vidya_balan) September 16, 2019
Shakuntala Devi, who was known as the ‘human computer’, was famous for her ability to mentally solve calculations involving large numbers in a matter of seconds.
Even today, the life she led, the work she did (she was also a writer, activist, and astrologer), and her achievements contribute to the development of both, the arithmetics field and the society in general.
She was only three when her father – a circus artist – first discovered her ability to memorize numbers while teaching her a card trick. By the age of six, she was demonstrating her talents at roadshows and public demonstrations – even though she had no formal education – and consequently, supporting her family.
At age 5 she could already extract cube roots quickly in her head, and she soon began supporting herself and the rest of her family as a stage performer, traveling throughout India billed as a calculating prodigy.
Her talent was consistently tested when she visited various universities and gave international tours. And every time, she proved that her ability was foolproof. Though many people tried, none were able to figure out how her ability actually manifested. She considered it a ‘gift from God’ and a result of her ‘love for numbers’.
In 1977, she was at the Southern Methodist University and extracted the root of a 201-digit number. The calculation was so complex that at the time, a special program had to be written for the computer to calculate and verify her result. Her response was correct, and it took her only 50 seconds to calculate the answer.
Arthur Jensen, a psychology professor at University of California, Berkeley, observed her in action at a demonstration she gave at the Stanford University. And later proceeded to test her, only to realize that before he could even note down the solutions, she’d calculated and shared the result.
In fact, in his paper, Speed of Information Processing in a Calculating Prodigy, he talked about how it never took her more than a minute to answer any question – no matter how complex. And cube roots were almost a ‘specialty’. He even noted how the recorded time or her answers may be overestimated because she often preceded her response with generic statements or wrote them out.
Simply put, even with her recorded times of 10 seconds, 20 seconds, and the longest, 50 seconds, there is a possibility that the actual calculation in her mind lasted for a shorter period of time. She could also calculate the exact day a particular date fell on, at a period of time, in a matter of seconds.
Over the years, she demonstrated her ability at universities across the globe, and in 1982, one of her achievements was recorded in the Guinness Book of Records. In just 28 seconds she had delivered the result of multiplication of two randomly generated 13-digit numbers (97,686,369,774,870 × 2,465,099,745,779). This was the achievement that cemented her position across the globe as a ‘human computer’.
Nobody challenges me, I challenge myself.
Shakuntala Devi published many books on arithmetics, such as Figuring: The Joy of Numbers (which is still in print), Book of Numbers, Super Memory: It Can Be Yours.
Apart from this, she also wrote about homosexuality in India, in her book The World of Homosexuals, and on astrology, in the book Astrology for You.
At the time of its release, because of Indian society’s outlook towards the LGBTQ+ community, her book The World of Homosexuals did not receive due attention – though today, she is considered to be a pioneer for raising awareness about homosexuality in India.
This is Shakuntala Devi aka the human calculator. We all might have heard about her but a lesser known fact is that she was also the author of first Indian book on homosexuality titled ‘ The World of Homosexuals.’ https://t.co/UcNEK1Ad08 pic.twitter.com/Rxpabe1PqT— Bolt News (@boltnews) February 13, 2019
Shakuntala Devi started researching on the subject after her husband came out of the closet, and she divorced him. She dedicated her life to raising awareness about the LGBTQ+ community, made attempts to understand the stigmatisation, and fought for the acceptance for same-sex relationships.
On this level, nothing less than full and complete acceptance will serve—not tolerance, and not sympathy.
Many interviews and papers published on her described as an affable, extraverted, and articulate woman who was an engaging conversationalist. But perhaps, one of her biggest achievements was how she broke the glass ceiling, time after time, and proved that women and maths can belong together.
She was 83 years old when she passed away due to health complications, and a Google doodle was created in her honour. Her legacy continues to live on.
A single mother, Shakuntala Devi proved that a woman can indeed achieve it all. And her achievements are a testament to not only her abilities but also her strength of character. This is truly a story that belongs to the silver screen.