Born on November 4, 1929, in an orthodox family in Bengaluru, Karnataka, Shakuntala Devi overcame her family’s impoverished condition as well as the lack of formal education to make a mark by the dint of her mathematical abilities.
At a very young age, she began learning mathematics from her grandfather. Her father, who had rebelled against his traditional family calling of being a priest or astrologer, worked as a magician. However, his earnings remained meagre, and it was not possible to formally educate Shakuntala.
One day, her father observed her extraordinary ability to remember card sequences and predict them by calculating the next move. He left his job, took his daughter along, and started roadside shows that focused on the little girl’s extraordinary skills. Her major breakthrough came at the age of 6 when she showcased her abilities at the University of Mysore.
In 1944, Shakuntala left for London with her father and travelled to several universities, colleges and schools to display her unique ability. Gradually, her father began organising tours professionally and the duo toured many parts of Europe and America.
In 1950, impressed by her seemingly extraordinary ability with numbers, using which she could solve a difficult arithmetic problem within seconds, BBC host Leslie Mitchell addressed her as a human computer. At first, her answer did not match the machine’s answer but it was later revealed that while Shakuntala’s answer was correct, the computer’s response was incorrect.
In 1988, during a visit to America, psychology professor Arthur Jensen from the University of California, Berkeley, wanted to study her abilities as part of research he was conducting for the Intelligence journal. Professor Jensen examined her skills by giving her mathematical tasks involving large numbers.
He even asked her to calculate the cube root of 61,629,875 and other difficult problems. Shakuntala solved such problems in a jiffy, faster than even the professor’s pace of writing. The professor’s study was published in 1990.
In 1977, at the Southern Methodist University,Texas, Shakuntala was asked to calculate the 23rd root of a 201-digit number. She gave her answer within five seconds, stunning everybody. Ironically, a special computer program had to be rewritten to make large calculations and cross-check her answers.
Return to India
During 1960s, Shakuntala returned to India and tied the knot with IAS officer Paritosh Bannerji in Kolkata. The couple divorced in 1979 and Shakuntala returned to Bangalore. In 2013, Shakuntala, then 83, suffered respiratory problems. On April 21, she died in a Bengaluru hospital. She was survived by her daughter Anupama Banerjee.
Shakuntala never liked the term ‘human computer’, given to her by a BBC journalist, and was used commonly to describe her extraordinary calculation abilities. It was her firm view that human minds are far superior to any machine, including computers.
In June 1980, Shakuntala achieved a feat at the Imperial College in London that enabled her to make it to the Guinness Book of World Records. She multiplied two 13-digit numbers and gave her correct answer as within 13 seconds to establish a new world record.
Despite being a mathematics genius, Shakuntala Devi had never been to school, or received any formal education. When she was 10, her parents enrolled her into St Theresa’s Convent in Chamarajpet, Bangalore, but she had to leave soon as her parents couldn’t afford the school fees.
In 1980, Shakuntala independently contested the Lok Sabha elections from Medak constituency in undivided Andhra Pradesh against then PM Indira Gandhi. She claimed that she wanted to save people from being fooled by the latter. She, however, could garner only 6,514 votes.
Shakuntala authored several books on diverse topics like astrology, mathematics and cooking. Some of her titles include Astrology for You, Book of Numbers, Figuring: The Joy of Number, The Wonderland of Numbers, Mathability: Awaken the Math Genius in Your Child, etc.
Source: Wikipedia and thefamouspeople.com
Jul 18, 2019 11:38 IST