Tuesday, 19 May 2020

The human computer, honoured with a Google Doodle!






Shakuntala Devi was a child prodigy, a maths genius, an Indian writer and mental calculator, popularly known as the human computer. Her talent earned her a place in the 1982 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records. Shakuntala Devi wrote a number of books in her later years, including novels as well as texts about mathematics, puzzles, and astrology. She wrote the book The World of Homosexuals, which is considered the first authentic study of homosexuality in India. She treated homosexuality in a positive light and is considered a pioneer in the field….

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I still remember, one morning, a smiling, short, middle-aged lady draped in a sari and with bob cut hair visit our school. We had heard about her, but were not aware of her achievements There was a lot of murmuring, with boys saying, she is a genius, can calculate big figures, plus, minus, multiplication, divide, squareroot and dates within seconds. We were curious. All the students were assembled in the quadrangle and were asked to be sitted and observe. And a big board was kept in the quadrangle top end and our math sir,  Mr Acharya had papers in his hand which had some big figures and math questions to be asked to Shakuntala Devi and test her skill. The session began. Mr Acharya started writing the figures on the blackboard. She was shown the questions and she replied easily without any fuss and with a smile on her face, astounding the audience with her speed in answering them. She impressed all. Teachers, students and others were stunned by her poise and speed in calculating. She truly was a genius.

Remembering  her on her death anniversary on 21 April, felt a sense of pride seeing the achievements of Shakuntala Devi. And also because of her achievements abroad as an Indian. It all started at the age of 3, it was while playing cards with her father, that he discovered her uncanny ability to memorise numbers.

Shakuntala Devi (4 November 1929 – 21 April 2013) was a child prodigy, a maths genius, an Indian writer and mental calculator, popularly known as the human computer. Her talent earned her a place in the 1982 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records. Born to Hindu Kannada Brahmin parents, Devi was a talented child and she demonstrated her arithmetic abilities at the University of Mysore without any formal education. Shakuntala Devi wrote a number of books in her later years, including novels as well as texts about mathematics, puzzles, and astrology. She wrote the book The World of Homosexuals, which is considered the first study of homosexuality in India. She treated homosexuality in a positive light and is considered a pioneer in the field.


Shakuntala Devi was born in Bangalore, Karnataka to an orthodox Kannada Brahmin family. Her father rebelled against becoming a temple priest and instead joined a circus where he worked as a trapeze artist, lion tamer, tightrope walker, and magician. He discovered his daughter's ability to memorise numbers while teaching her a card trick when she was about three years old. Her father left the circus and took her on road shows that displayed her ability at calculation. She did this without any formal education. At the age of six, she demonstrated her arithmetic abilities at the University of Mysore, impressing all.

In 1944, Shakuntala Devi moved to London with her father. Shakuntala Devi travelled the world demonstrating her arithmetic talents, including a tour of Europe in 1950 and a performance in New York City in 1976. In 1988, she travelled to US to have her abilities studied by Arthur Jensen, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Jensen tested her performance with several tasks, including the calculation of large numbers. Examples of the problems presented to Devi included calculating the cube root of 61,629,875 and the seventh root of 170,859,375. Jensen reported that Shakuntala Devi provided the solution to the above mentioned problems (395 and 15, respectively) before Jensen could copy them down in his notebook. Jensen published his findings in the academic journal Intelligence in 1990.



In 1977, at Southern Methodist University, she gave the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds. Her answer -546,372,891 - was confirmed by calculations done at the US Bureau of Standards by the UNIVAC 1101 computer, for which a special program had to be written to perform such a large calculation. On 18 June 1980, she demonstrated the multiplication of two 13-digit numbers - 7,686,369,774,870 × 2,465,099,745,779 - picked at random by the Computer Department of Imperial College London. She correctly answered 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730 in 28 seconds. This event was recorded in the 1982 Guinness Book of Records. Writer Steven Smith said, ‘the result is so far superior to anything previously reported that it can only be described as unbelievable.’ Her record included the time it took her to recite the 26-digit solution.

During an event at the University of Rome, the judges declared her answer to a problem as wrong, until the experts re-examined their own calculations and found her to be right. Shakuntala Devi travelled the world, displaying her ability to perform complex calculations in her head, despite having no formal education. And given any date in the last century, she could ascertain the day on which it fell.

Shakuntala Devi explained many of the methods she used to do mental calculations in her book, Figuring: The Joy of Numbers, which is still in print. In 1977, she wrote, The World of Homosexuals, the first study of homosexuality in India. In the documentary, For Straights Only, she said that her interest in the topic was because of her marriage to a homosexual man and her desire to look at homosexuality more closely to understand it. The book, considered pioneering then, features interviews with two young Indian homosexual men, a male couple in Canada seeking legal marriage, a temple priest who explains his views on homosexuality, and a review of the existing literature on homosexuality. It ends with a call for decriminalisation of homosexuality, and full and complete acceptance—not tolerance and sympathy. The book, however, went mostly unnoticed at that time.

She returned to India in the mid-1960s and married Paritosh Banerji, an officer of the Indian Administrative Service from Kolkata. The marriage did not last long. They were divorced in 1979. In 1980, she contested in the Lok Sabha elections as an independent, from Mumbai South and from Medak, a place in Telangana. In Medak she stood against Indira Gandhi, saying she wanted to defend the people of Medak from being fooled by Mrs. Gandhi; she was fooled by the voters there, she stood ninth, with 6514 votes (1.47% of the votes). Shakuntala Devi returned to Bangalore in the early 1980s to lead a quiet life.

In April 2013, Shakuntala Devi was admitted to a hospital in Bangalore with respiratory problems. Over the following two weeks she suffered from complications of the heart and kidneys. She died in the hospital on 21 April 2013. She was 83 years old. She is survived by her daughter, Anupama Banerjee.

On 4 November 2013, Shakuntala Devi was honoured with a Google Doodle on what would have been her 84th birthday.

In addition to her work as a mental calculator, Devi was an astrologer and an author of several books, including cookbooks and novels. Below is the list of some of her books:

Astrology for You (New Delhi: Orient, 2005). 
Book of Numbers (New Delhi: Orient, 2006). 
Figuring: The Joy of Numbers (New York: Harper & Row, 1977)
In the Wonderland of Numbers (New Delhi: Orient, 2006). 
Mathability: Awaken the Math Genius in Your Child (New Delhi: Orient, 2005). 
More Puzzles to Puzzle You (New Delhi: Orient, 2006). 
Perfect Murder (New Delhi: Orient, 1976), 
Puzzles to Puzzle You (New Delhi: Orient, 2005). 
Super Memory: It Can Be Yours (New Delhi: Orient, 2011).; (Sydney: New Holland, 2012). 
The World of Homosexuals (Vikas Publishing House, 1977), 

A film on her life story was announced in May 2019, slated to be released in summer 2020. The film titled Shakuntala Devi stars Vidya Balan in the lead role and features Sanya Malhotra, Amit Sadh, and Jisshu Sengupta. It is produced by Sony Pictures Networks Productions and Vikram Malhotra. The release date of the film was initially planned for 8 May 2020, however due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film will be streamed worldwide on Amazon Prime Video, instead of being released theatrically.

She once said – Mathematics is life, you have math in everything, right from your date of birth to the food you eat and the air you breathe. She’s gone but her achievements have left a mark of her genius.









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Shiv Ling, Amarnath, India
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