Shakuntala Devi, a mathematical genius and frequently honored as India’s “human computer,” died over the weekend in her native city of Bangalore of heart failure and kidney problems. She was 83.
Devi, who amazingly had no formal education, displayed her amazing computational powers and ability to solve difficult mathematical equations in early childhood and demonstrated her talents at the tender age of 6 at a local university.
She eventually became a household name in India.
Among other feats, she could multiply any two random 13-digit numbers in a matter of a few seconds; and once she calculated the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in less than one minute. She could also immediately tell which day of the week any date in the prior century fell on.
Devi gained global fame in 1977 in Dallas by figuring out a complex math equation 10 seconds quicker than one of the world's fastest computers.
She was the author of a number of books designed to make mathematics more appealing to children with titles like “Fun with Numbers,” “Puzzles to Puzzle You,” “Figuring: The Joy of Numbers” and “Super Memory: It Can Be Yours.”
Separately, she had a successful career as an astrologer.
Devi modestly attributed her talents to God and declared that no one in her family had any affinity for numbers like she did.
"She was a legend,” her associate Kavita Malhotra told the IANS news service.
“Really, we didn't expect madam to go like this. She was very lively and was looking forward to getting well soon. But her health was not good and it's a great loss for all of us.”
Tributes to Devi came pouring in from some of the top academic and scientific minds in India.
"Devi used very distinctive but offbeat techniques, which were not always based on theorem, but her methods were correct and gave results. Her capability to perform sophisticated computation, which could beat computers, gave her a stature of a computational wizard. Her death is a great loss to us all," said Professor Y. Narahari, chairman of the computer science department at the Indian Institute of Science.
"Shakuntala Devi used a high degree of mnemonic devices in their brain and had tremendous retention power, unlike most normal human beings. She was able to hold on to large number of digits (both input and output) in her memory," said Professor C.E. Veni Madhavan of the computer science and automation department at the same institute.
India’s President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh have also expressed their condolences.
In an interview with the Times of India a few years ago, Devi described her impoverished background.
"I have not gone to a school,” she said. “At [the age of] 10, I was admitted to Class 1 of St Theresa's Convent in Chamarajpet [a neighborhood of Bangalore]. But my parents could not afford the monthly fee of [two rupees], so in three months, I was thrown out. I grew up in a semi-slum area in Gavipuram, Guttahalli.”
Indeed, her father refused to join the priesthood as his tradition dictated, opting instead to work in a circus.
She added: "It's my dream to open a mathematics university and R&D centre, which will educate a cross-section of people, using modern techniques, short-cuts and smart methods. I cannot transfer my abilities to anyone, but I can think of quicker ways with which to help people develop numerical aptitude. There are a large number of people whose logic is unexplored."
In a bizarre aside, Devi also wrote a book called “The World of Homosexuals,” in which she promoted a liberal viewpoint on gays and same-sex marriage.
Devi is survived by a daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters.