Today’s Google Doodle honors the 84th birthday of Shakuntala Devi, who passed away this past April. Known as the “Human Computer” and “Mental Calculator” for her remarkable mathematical ability, she was capable of solving complex equations faster than most computers — without any formal training. The Times of India gives this summary:
Born on November 4, 1929, in Bangalore, to an orthodox priestly Brahmin family Devi had no access to proper schooling and food in her early years.
When she was only three, Devi began showing great affinity with numbers. By the time she was five, she became an expert in solving complex mental arithmetic.
Credited with solving some frightfully complicated arithmetic problems with apparent ease and astonishing speed, Shakuntala Devi’s calculating skills stunned the world throughout the 1970s and 80s. Her sharpness often made sophisticated digital devices seem inadequate.
Shakuntala Devi figured in the Guiness Book of World Record for her outstanding ability and wrote numerous books like ‘Fun with Numbers’, ‘Astrology for You’, ‘Puzzles to Puzzle You’, and ‘Mathablit’.
At the age of six, she demonstrated her calculation skills in her first major public performance at the University of Mysore and two years later, she again proved herself successful as a child prodigy at Annamalai University.
In 1977, Shakuntala Devi extracted the 23rd root of a 201-digit number mentally. In the same year in Dallas, she competed with a computer to see who gives the cube root of 188138517 faster and she won.
Rated as one in 58 million for her stupendous mathematical feats by one of the fastest supercomputers ever invented, the Univac-1108, Devi believed in using grey cells to silicon chips.
On June 18, 1980 she demonstrated the multiplication of two 13-digit numbers 7,686,369,774,870 x 2,465,099,745,779 picked at random by the Computer Department of Imperial College, London. She answered the question in 28 seconds flat. This event is mentioned in the 1995 Guinness Book of Records.
Aside from these profound mathematical achievements, in 1977 she published India’s first formal study of homosexuality, concluding that it should be decriminalized and treated with “full and complete acceptance—not tolerance and not sympathy”. Her humanism was as great as her intellect. It’s a shame she’s not better known outside of India.