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'Human computer' who bested the machines dies in India at 83

Vijay Mathur / Reuters file

Math prodigy Shankutala Devi in 2007.

Shakuntala Devi, an Indian mathematical wizard known as “the human computer” for her ability to make incredibly swift calculations, died on Sunday in Bangalore, India. She was 83. 

The cause was respiratory and cardiac problems, said D. C. Shivadev, a trustee of the Shakuntala Devi Educational Foundation Public Trust.

Ms. Devi demonstrated her mathematical gifts around the world, at colleges, in theaters and on radio and television. In 1977, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, she extracted the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds, beating a Univac computer, which took 62 seconds.

In 1980, she correctly multiplied two 13-digit numbers in only 28 seconds at the Imperial College in London. The feat, which earned her a place in the 1982 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, was even more remarkable because it included the time to recite the 26-digit solution.

The New York Times

Problems solved by Ms. Devi during a demonstration in 1976, as they appeared in The New York Times.

(The numbers, selected at random by a computer, were 7,686,369,774,870 and 2,465,099,745,779. The answer was 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730.)

Shakuntala Devi was born in Bangalore on Nov. 4, 1929. Her father was a trapeze artist and lion tamer in a circus. Survivors include a daughter and two grandchildren.

She was about 3 and playing cards with her father when he discovered that she was a mathematical prodigy with an uncanny ability to memorize numbers. By the time she was 5, she had become an expert at solving math problems.

Ms. Devi won fame demonstrating her math skills at the circus, and later in road shows arranged by her father.

“I had become the sole breadwinner of my family, and the responsibility was a huge one for a young child,” she once said. “At the age of 6, I gave my first major show at the University of Mysore, and this was the beginning of my marathon of public performances.”

She toured Europe in 1950. When she appeared on the BBC, her answer to a difficult calculation was different from the interviewer’s. It turned out that she was right. Similarly, at the University of Rome, one of her answers to a problem was found to be wrong, until the experts re-examined their own calculations.

When Ms. Devi performed in New York in 1976, an article in The New York Times marveled at her abilities: “She could give you the cube root of 188,132,517 — or almost any other number — in the time it took to ask the question. If you gave her any date in the last century, she would tell you what day of the week it fell on.”

In a 1990 journal article about Ms. Devi, Arthur R. Jensen, a researcher on human intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that unlike the Dustin Hoffman character in the movie “Rain Man,” an autistic savant who was also a mathematical prodigy, “Devi comes across as alert, extroverted, affable and articulate.”

He posited that for Ms. 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 learned in school.” But he added that she built on her inherent skills through intense practice as a child.

Ms. Devi was also a successful astrologer, cookbook author and novelist.

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This story, "Shakuntala Devi, 'Human Computer,' Dies in India at 83," first appeared in The New York Times. Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company.