The women who knew too much

Human-computer who never attended school

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The Beginning

She was born in Bengaluru, on 4 November 1929 to a rebellious father who had joined Circus instead of been temple priest as per their family tradition. And, she started part of his caravan by the age of 3. Father was aging and used to work as an acrobat and magician. In the beginning she used to assist her father in the various card tricks. That’s when she first got into numbers and it was a love first sights. By the age of 5 she could already extract cube roots quickly in her head. Her father discovered her ability to memorise numbers and soon he left the circus and took her on road shows around India to display her talent. She soon began supporting herself and the rest of her family as a stage performer.

The Human Computer

On October 5, 1950, BBC hosted a show with her. During the show, host Leslie Mitchell gave her a complex math problem to solve. She solved it in seconds but the answer was not correct, according to the host. However, after rechecking the answer, Mitchell confessed that she was indeed correct and his original answer was wrong. This news spread across the world and it earned her the title of the ‘Human Computer’. Soon, she beat a UNIVAC computer at calculating numerical roots as an adult, and set a world record by multiplying two 13-digit numbers in 28 seconds. She also extracted the 23rd root of a 201-digit number. Her answer—546,372,891—was confirmed by calculations done at the U.S. Bureau of Standards by the UNIVAC 1101 computer, for which a special program had to be written to perform such a large calculation

1988, the San Francisco Bay Area

Then, in 1988, Devi visited the San Francisco Bay Area, to do a demonstration before an audience filled with mathematicians, engineers, and computer experts. All of them had come with their electronic calculators or printouts of gigantic problems that had been submitted to the University’s main-frame computer and were largely unsolved. Dressed in a colorful silk Sari, she sat at a table in front of the blackboard in a lecture hall. The show lasted for about 90 mins. Problems involving large numbers were written on the blackboard by volunteers. Devi would turn around to look at a problem on the blackboard, and always in less than 1 minutes (but usually in just a few seconds) she would reply with the answer. Sometimes for the case of solutions involving quite large numbers she would write the answer on the blackboard. By now, she was a living Math Legend. Many started linking her ability with her supernatural memory power or just an extension of Trachtenberg Speed Math. Ofcourse how the western world would “bow down and worship her”. I feel our modern day liberal could have also opted that same route!!

Personal life

She had Paritosh Banerji, an officer of the Indian Administrative Service from Kolkata. But it was not a joyful love life and by 1979 they were divorced. But not before she wrote a book titled The World of Homosexuals. Her interest in the topic was an outcome of her marriage to Paritosh Chatterjee, who later revealed that he was homosexual. The book, considered “pioneering”, features interviews with two young Indian homosexual men, a male couple in Canada seeking legal marriage, a temple priest who explains his views on homosexuality, and a review of the existing literature on homosexuality. It is also considered by many as the beginning of the debate on homosexuality in 20th century India.

In 1980, she also contested in the Lok Sabha elections as an independent, from Medak in Andhra Pradesh against Indira Gandhi.

Astrologer and Author

Besides her work on math, she was an astrologer and an author of several books, including cookbook and novel. Including mystery stories such as “Perfect Murder” that caused a ruckus by claiming some doctors had admitted her to hospital to steal her brain. In 2006 she released her last book called “In the Wonderland of Numbers” which talks about a girl Neha and her fascination for numbers. The book is in the form of story and will excite the readers about numbers and number theory.

She also wanted to start a mathematics university–Ganitha Kshetra–in Hyderabad. To impart knowledge of Indian or Vedic mathematics to students, coupled with personality development using techniques of yoga and mind dynamics

On 4 November 2013, Google honoured Shakuntala Devi with a Doodle on what would have been her 84th birthday. And in a few weeks from now we will also witness what looks like a good biopic on her.