Human computerShakuntala Devi

Known as a “Human Computer”, Devi’s talents were discovered in an odd way. When she was 3, her father decided he did not want to become a priest, and ran away with the circus. One of his acts was as a magician, and the young girl helped her father with card tricks. He quickly realized she had a great memory and extraordinary ability with calculation, so he quit the circus to help the girl develop her talent. And talented she was: in a 1977 demonstration in Texas, she handily beat a computer in determining the cube root of 188,132,517. In another demonstration, it took her just 50 seconds to determine the 23rd root of a 201-digit number; the Univac 1108 computer that helped confirm she was correct took 60 seconds to come up with the answer. In 1980, the Computer Department of Imperial College, London, gave her two random 13-digit numbers and asked her to multiply them together. Her (correct) answer came in just 28 seconds.

Devi in an early family photo.
Devi never had any formal education, but liked helping kids learn math. “I cannot transfer my abilities to anyone, but I can think of quicker ways with which to help people develop numerical aptitude,” she said. “There are a large number of people whose logic is unexplored.” She helped by writing books, including Fun with Numbers, Puzzles to Puzzle You, Figuring: The Joy of Numbers, and Super Memory: It Can Be Yours. “Devi used very distinctive but offbeat techniques, which were not always based on theorem, but her methods were correct and gave results,” says Prof. Y. Narahari, the chairman of computer science at the Indian Institute of Science. “Her capability to perform sophisticated computation, which could beat computers, gave her a stature of a computational wizard.” She was well known throughout India, and both the country’s president and prime ministers expressed sadness over her death. Devi died in a hospital in Bangalore on April 21, from heart and kidney failure. She was 83.

Author’s Note: I found out years later that she wrote another book: The World of Homosexuals (1977), and later said she wrote it because she married a homosexual man and wanted to understand him better. And she did: the book calls for “full and complete acceptance — not tolerance and sympathy.” Considered pioneering for the time and place, the book went mostly unnoticed for years.

From This is True for 21 April 2013