April 23, 2013 10:30 am
When she was three, Shakuntala Devi’s father noticed that she could memorize the numbers on cards and figure out card tricks. A trapeze artist, Devi’s father brought his daughter to the crowds to wow them with her amazing brain. By age six, Devi was calculating huge numbers in her head to impress visitors. But by the time she reached adulthood, Devi’s mental math would wow not just circus-goers, but computers and mathematicians all over the world.
In 1977, Devi faced off against a computer in a speed calculation race. She won twice. First, by calculating the cube root of 188,132,517. (It’s 573.) The second time, she beat the computer even more impressively. It took Devi 50 seconds to think of the 23rd root of a 201 digit number (91674867692003915809866092758538016248310668014430862240712651642793465704086709659 3279205767480806790022783016354924852380335745316935111903596577547340075681688305 620821016129132845564805780158806771, if you want to work it out for yourself in your head). The computer—a UNIVAC 1108—took a full thirty seconds longer. In 1980, she multiplied 7,686,369,774,870 by 2,465,099,745,779 in 28 seconds.
All this complex math earned Devi the nickname “human computer.” She left behind several books, including Figuring the Joy of Numbers, that teach her methods, but her techniques for simplifying math were never really picked up by mainstream schools. Her phenomenal calculation skills could also help her tell the day for any date in the last century, and Devi was, in her personal life, quite interested in dates. She doled out astrology predictions and wrote a book called Astrology for You. When asked where she got her human computer-like gifts, Devi answered “God’s gift. A divine quality.”
Devi passed away from respiratory problems at a hospital in Bangalore. She was 83.
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