In an age where traditional gender stereotypes still reign and limit women from achieving positions in leadership and technological sectors, many women in the past have successfully broken the barrier and proved the otherwise paving path for newer generations of women to shine. Shakuntala Devi, born in November 1929 in Karnataka, India is one of the powerful women known for her mathematical skills. Popularly known as the ‘Human Computer’, Devi had a mysteriously unknown ability to perform highly complicated calculations of large numbers within just a few seconds.
Daughter of a circus dancer, Devi’s talent was first discovered by her father during a card trick when she was three years old. Although she never got formal education opportunities, she received international exposure through various roadshows that her father organized to showcase her talents. At the age of six, she demonstrated her arithmetic abilities at the University of Mysore. By the time she was a teenager, she was already traveling around major cities in the world performing her talents.
Devi was born with a unique ability to perform a range of arithmetic calculations- extracting cube roots of 9 to 27 digit long numbers within some seconds. 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 2,373,927,704 (answer 1334) in 10 seconds. She also calculated the 7th root of 455,762,531,836,562,695,930,666,032,734,375 (answer 46,295) in 40 seconds.
Likewise, she could also perform long multiplications. At Imperial College on June 18, 1980, Shakuntala Devi was asked to multiply two 13-digit numbers that she answered in 28 seconds. This got her into the Guinness Book of World records in 1982.
Her skill also included calendar calculation where she could tell the day of any date in the last century. 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.
Many psychological studies attempted to decipher the secrets of her skills, however, the mystery remains unsolved. Arthur Jensen, the psychologist from the University of California-Berkeley conducted several tests on her skills and published the findings in the journal Intelligence in 1990. None of the objective tests could explain how Devi was able to perform these rather rare and incredible numerical feats. He however expressed about possible enormous and prolonged interest and practice in particular skill might have played part in developing her skill. He also mentions in his report “Devi ‘perceives’ large numbers differently from the way most of us ordinarily do. When she takes in a large number (and she must do this visually), it undergoes some transformation, almost instantly — usually some kind of simplification of the number.” She described some methods of mental multiplication and calendar calculations in her book ‘Figuring: The Joy of Mathematics’
All self-taught, Devi later authored several books on calculations, mathematical puzzles, and grooming children in mathematical skills. She also wrote numerous books on astrology, cookbooks, and novels.
Her talent gave her international recognition. Indira Gandi, during an interview in 2009, told her about her being a special ambassador for her roving mathematical skills who can help establish Indian friendships with many countries.
Married around mind 1960s and divorced later, Devi passed away in 2013 at 83 years of age. She has a daughter residing in London. A film of her life titled ‘Shakuntala Devi’ was released in July 2020 on amazon prime.