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Words Matter: Shakuntala Devi - Competing with Computers

Shakuntala Devi was born in 1929 on November 4th in Bengaluru. Coming from a poor background, she did not receive formal education and spent her time-solving puzzles and traveling with her father. Her father was in the circus business, a controversial field at the time, and added her to his circus once he discovered her unbelievable ability, which was evident when she won all the puzzles and games by memorization at the age of three.

Devi began to grow well known and famous during her father’s circus tours when she was six years old and gained much attention from universities all over in India.

In a BBC show in 1955, Devi was asked to solve a difficult problem and replied within seconds. However, her answer differed from that of the mathematicians present. Once they calculated the problem again to check, they realized they had made an error-she had gotten the correct answer

At the Southern Methodist University in 1977, she figured out the 23rd root of a number 201 digits long. A computer with a specialized program had to calculate and indicate her solution was correct.

In addition to various appearances on talk shows and at universities, Devi also appeared on the 1982 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. The feat that was recognized in the book was her solving a multiplication problem with two thirteen-digit numbers in 1980.

Another instance of Devi’s talent was at the University of California in 1988. The psychology professor, Arthur Jensen, asked her to calculate the cube root of an eight-digit number and the seventh root of an eight digit number. She responded even before he copied the problems down!

Separate from her mathematical calculations, Devi was also an astrologer, wrote books, and made puzzle books for children. She also started an organization to provide education for children whose families could not afford it; the organization was called the Shakuntala Devi Education Foundation Public Trust.

Devi passed away due to respiratory issues and kidney conditions on April 21, 2013. That year, she was remembered by a Google Doodle on her birthday.

Written by: Sejal Mohan

Edited by: Akhila Boda

Graphic: Bipasha Patel

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