Shakuntala Devi’s Amazing Arithmetic Feats That Prove She Indeed Was A “Human Computer”

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A human calculator that solved the most complex of Math problems with unimaginable ease, Shakuntala Devi was an Indian gem by all means. But more than anything else, I see her as a genius of a woman who is a counter to the popular absurd notion that says- women are mathematically challenged.

Born in Bangalore on 4 November 1929, she was just 5, when unlike other kids who were still trying to get a hang of counting, this child prodigy was travelling with her dad and solving complicated cube roots in her performances, which fetched money for the family.

She grew up to become not just a Math wizard who travelled the world giving it the glimpses of the extraordinary, but a ‘woman’ popularly known as the world’s “human computer“, who has her extraordinary feat recorded in the 1982 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records.

Following are 4 of her many extraordinary arithmetic talents that left the world astonished.

1. She added four complex numbers and multiplied the result by 9,878 in 20 seconds

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The numbers that she added were:

25,842,278
111,201,721
370,247,830
55,511,315

And the final answer obtained after the result of the addition was multiplied by 9,878, was a gigantic 5,559,369,456,432.

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2. She extracted the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds

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And as if this wasn’t amazing enough, her answer- 546,372,891, was confirmed by UNIVAC 1101 computer at the US Bureau of Standards, for which they had to create a whole new program to perform such a trivial calculation! This happened in 1977 at the Southern Methodist University.

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3. She solved the record-worthy multiplication problem of 13-digit numbers: 7,686,369,774,870 × 2,465,099,745,779, in 28 seconds

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The problem was randomly put before her by the Computer Department of Imperial College, London, in 1980. And the gigantic answer of 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730, that she took just 28 seconds to come up with earned her a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Her this feat was also described aptly as: “so far superior to anything previously reported that it can only be described as unbelievable”-by writer Steven Smith.

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4. Arthur Jenson’s study of Shakuntala Devi’s arithmetic talents:  She was asked to extract the cube root of 61,629,875 and the seventh root of 170,859,375

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Her abilities were tested by Arthur Jensen (professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkley) in 1988. It was not unsurprising when Jensen asked her to solve complex problems involving large numbers.

For example, she was asked to extract the cube root of 61,629,875 and the seventh root of 170,859,375.

According to Jensen, Shakuntala Devi solved both the problems before he could even note them down. The answers were 395 and 15, respectively.

Jensen also wrote-

“For a calculating prodigy like Devi, the manipulation of numbers is apparently like a native language, whereas, for most of us, arithmetic calculation is at best like the foreign language we learnt at school.”

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Numbers were her friends in need

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Shakuntala Devi’s family couldn’t afford her schooling. She once said that she did join a convent when she was 10, but was expelled within 3 months because her parents couldn’t afford to pay the fees. From aiding her to earn money for the family to establishing her popularity as the “human computer”, numbers were all she had.

Talking about her love for numbers, Shakuntala Devi was once quoted as saying,

“I cannot transfer my abilities to anyone, but I can think of quicker ways with which to help people develop numerical aptitude.”

What’s amazing, however, is that there’s more to her than the credit of an ingenious human calculator. She was also a noted Indian writer who wrote books on puzzles, mathematics, astrology and, she is also credited as the author of what’s considered “the first study of homosexuality in India.”

Aged 83, Shakuntala Devi breathed her last on 21 April 2013.

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