Shakuntala Devi was born in Bangalore in 1929. Her father worked in a circus as a trapeze artist. When she was just 3 he discovered his daughter’s ability to memorize numbers. He left the circus and started to take her on road shows projecting her talent at calculating. At the age of six, she proved her mathematical capabilities in the University of Mysore.

Shakuntala Devi never received any formal education. Yet she was found to be an expert in highly complex mental mathematics. In 1944 she moved to London and went across a tour of Europe demonstrating her arithmetic abilities. She got the moniker ‘Human Computer’ after she appeared on a BBC show in 1950 when she and the computer had different answers to a complex math problem—and hers was right. In 1976 she moved to USA.

Some of the arithmetic skills that made her popular were –

  • Calculating Cube roots: It began with extracting cube roots of large numbers, which she could do in her head rapidly while still a child in the 1930s. Then in 1988, in a test of her abilities conducted by the psychologist Arthur Jensen at the University of California-Berkeley, Shakuntala Devi mentally calculated the cube roots of 95,443,993 (answer 457) in 2 seconds, of 204,336,469 (answer 589) in 5 seconds, and of 2,373,927,704 (answer 1334) in 10 seconds.
  • Calculating Higher roots: She calculated the 7th root of 455,762,531,836,562,695,930,666,032,734,375 (answer 46,295) in 40 seconds. This means that 46,295 multiplied by itself seven times yields that number of 27 digits; Shakuntala Devi worked backwards from the 7th power to derive the root. This too was recorded in the test at Berkeley in 1988.
  • Doing Long multiplication: This is the skill that got her into the Guinness Book of Records in 1982. At Imperial College on June 18, 1980, Shakuntala Devi was asked to multiply two 13-digit numbers: 7,686,369,774,870 × 2,465,099,745,779. She got the answer in 28 seconds — 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730.
  • Calendar calculations: Given any date in the last century, she could instantly say which day of the week that date fell on. For example, if you gave her the date July 31, 1920, she would immediately tell you that it was a Saturday. If the date was stated in the order month, day, year (for example, July-13-1920), her average response time was about 1 second. But when the dates were stated to her in the order year, month, day (for example 1920-July-31), “her answers came about as fast as one could start the stopwatch”, the 1988 test at Berkeley found

In 1960, Devi married Paritosh Banerji. They divorced years later, and the 2001 documentary “For Straights Only” claimed the marriage fell apart because Banerji was gay. She also once tried to forge a path into politics. She contested elections in 1980 as an independent candidate from two different localities — Mumbai and Medak. In Medak, her main opponent was the former prime minister, Indira Gandhi, whom Devi had openly criticized. Her fame, however, didn’t translate into votes, and she finished ninth.

In addition to her work as a mental calculator, Devi also applied her mathematical strength to pursue astrology. Devi was a notable astrologer and toured the world, seeing up to 60 clients a day. She was also an author of several books, including cookbooks and novels. She started with writing short stories and murder mysteries, and had a keen interest in music

In April 2013, Devi was admitted to a hospital in Bangalore with severe respiratory problems. Over the following two weeks she suffered from heart and kidney complications. She died in the hospital on 21 April 2013. She was 83 years old. On 4 November 2013, Devi was honoured with a Google Doodle on what would have been her 84th birthday.

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