All You Need to Know About Shakuntala Devi: The Human Computer

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Shakuntala Devi

Blessed with the superhuman ability to carry out complex mathematical calculations, Shakuntala Devi a.k.a. the Human-Computer astonished the world with her mathematical intelligence. A vigorous and enthusiastic achiever and amongst the most famous Indian Mathematicians, Devi was able to remember numbers since she was 3 years old and went on to perform live calculations on TV and Radio. Further, she also explored astrology to delve deeper into her passionate strive towards numbers and became an ally of the LGBTQ community as well. Curious to know about the life of this math wizard? This blog takes you through an insightful journey of unraveling the life story of Shakuntala Devi, how she became the Human Computer, made significant contributions to Astrology and extended her support to the LGBTQ community in India!

Shakuntala Devi’s Childhood

Image Courtesy: Be an Inspirer

Shakuntala Devi was born on 4th November 1929 in Bangalore, Karnataka. Her father, who rejected being a temple priest in favor of working in a circus, was the first to realize the 3-year old Shakuntala’s talent of memorizing numbers while teaching her card tricks. Soon after that, her father left his job at the circus and focussed on conducting roadshows to demonstrate her incredible abilities to the world. By the age of five, she became a pro at solving math problems. 

Her first major show was at the University of Mysore at the age of 6, and it was only the beginning of many public shows that followed. Shakuntala Devi never received any formal education but engaged in reading and writing on her own accord. She moved to London with her father in 1944.

Gaining Popularity as the ‘Human Computer’

Shakuntala Devi toured many countries of the world while exhibiting her mathematical genius including a tour of Europe in the 1950s and of New York in 1976.

Image Courtesy: The New York Times

The fastest computers in use at that time were no match to the speed of Devi’s brain. Some of the astonishing and striking achievements through which Devi earned the title of the Human-Computer are:

  • In the year 1977, Shakuntala Devi visited the Southern Methodist University where she calculated the 23rd root of a 201 digit number in a mere 50 seconds, which was less than the time taken by Univac-1108, the then-fastest computer in the world, to make the same calculation. 
  • Her name was recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records for her feat of multiplying two randomly assigned 13 digit numbers at Imperial College London in 1980.
  • In 1988, she was tested by Arthur Jensen, an American Psychologist, Writer and Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley as Devi calculated cube roots of large numbers mentally in mere seconds. In the same test, she took only 40 seconds to calculate the 7th root of a 33 digit number.
  • Devi was also good at calendric calculations as she could instantly find out the right weekday from any date of the last century.

Interesting Fact: When she was lauded with the accolade of ‘Human Computer’, Devi often said that she was not very fond of this title and considered the human brain as far superior to any computer can ever be. 

Where Did She Learn These Skills? 

Devi did not go to school, so you may wonder, where did she actually learn all these skills? She is entirely self taught. From the age of three, she travelled with her parents as her father worked in a circus. There, she learned the ability to calculate while performing card tricks. Once she started exhibiting cube roots in her head, she became a performer exhibiting her skills. Discovering it, her father left the circus and took her on road shows that displayed her ability at calculation.

About Shakuntala Devi

Image Courtesy: Outlook India

Known for her fiercely independent spirit, Shakuntala Devi married Paritosh Banerji, who was an IAS Officer in Kolkata. After giving birth to her daughter Anupama Banerji, her marriage fell apart, and later the couple got divorced as Banerji’s homosexuality was revealed. This urged Devi to delve deeper into the roots of Homosexuality in India and later she wrote a book titled The World of Homosexuals in which she openly challenged the stereotypical idea of homosexuality as immoral. This book was also amongst the first published academic studies on Homosexuality in the country. Through her writing, Devi called out that those disrespecting and mocking others on sexual preferences are actually immoral and must look within their own selves. She also ventured into Astrology to experiment with her fascination for numbers. During the 1980s, she also contested twice in the Lok Sabha Elections and the second time against Indira Gandhi. Shakuntala Devi passed away in Bangalore on 21st April 2013 due to respiratory and cardiac problems. 

A Gifted and Versatile Genius

Image Courtesy: Harmony Magazine

A self-taught woman, Shakuntala Devi was not fluent in English when she first toured abroad but gradually attained mastery in a variety of languages in the course of her life. She wrote an array of books on Mathematics and Calculations as well as fictional novels and cookbooks amongst others. In her book titled Figuring: The Joy of Numbers, she discussed some of the methods she used for carrying out speedy calculations.

Shakuntala Devi Film

Shakuntala Devi (2020) - IMDb
Credit: IMDb

Inspired by her life, Director Anu Menon and producers, Sony Pictures Networks India, Abundantia Entertainment and Genius Films created the movie Shakuntala. Vidya Balan starred as the lead actor playing Shakuntala while Sanya Malhotra played her daughter. The story revolves around the mathematics genius and her personal and professional life. Actress Vidya Balan was also nominated for the 2021 Filmfare Award for Best Actress.

Thus, Shakuntala Devi was truly a gifted mathematical genius and a tireless achiever who passionately pursued many interests during her lifetime from leaving the world awestruck with her faster calculations to chasing her fascination for numbers through Astrology and lending her support to the LGBTQ community as well. Are you apprehensive about finding the right career path? Our Leverage Edu experts are just a click away to guide you in making informed decisions at every step of your academic and professional journey! Sign up for a free session today!

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