Shakuntala Devi: the face of mental calculations in India

Celebrating 90 years of the human computer


November 3, 2019

/ By / New Delhi

shakuntala devi

Shakuntala Devi was a world-renowned Indian mathematician and a calculating genius.

On the 90th birth anniversary of Shakuntala Devi, the mathematical wizard who made even the toughest calculations seem like a cakewalk, here is a sneak peek into her life.

Born on November 4, 1929, in Bengaluru, in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka, Shakuntala Devi was a world-renowned Indian mathematician and a calculating genius. Thanks to her extraordinary skills in solving the complex out of arithmetical problems without any mechanical aid, she earned the nickname ‘Human Computer’.

Her father who had run away from home to become a circus performer was the one to plant the love for numbers in Shakuntala’s brain at a very young age with the help of card tricks. Over the years, the strengthening of her calculating skills led her to become a prodigy in the world of mental arithmetic. Her excellence was shown globally in a number of institutions. Owing to her brilliant mind, Shakuntala could do addition, multiplication, division, calculation of square and cube roots and Vedic math at the tip of her fingers, challenging even the fastest of the computers of the time.

Devi won the title of Distinguished Women of The Year in 1969 by the University of Philippines. She was also honoured with the Ramanujan Mathematical Genius Award in 1988 in Washington DC. The most astonishing achievement of hers till date is the multiplication of two 13-digit numbers: ‘7,686,369,774,870 x 2,465,099,745,779’, at the Imperial College in London, where she got the answer in just 28 seconds fetching her name in the 1982 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records.

Her achievements were not just limited to the domain of mathematics only. After discovering her husbands homosexual identity, the reaction of which could have been an extreme state of homophobia, Shakuntala instead researched about the plight of the gay community in India leading her to her write a book called The World of Homosexuals in 1977. The book being way too ahead of its time, helped the struggles of the homosexual community grab eyeballs during the 70s and the 80s when the concept was not at all talked about. Till today, it is considered as one of the most profound and comprehensive study on homosexuality in India.

The entire life of Shakuntala Devi which was nothing but an effort to crumble arithmophobia and homophobia is now being made in a biopic starring Vidya Balan and Sanya Malhotra. Devi also wrote a book on astrology titled Astrology for You, where she explained the importance and impact of zodiacs, planets, asterisms etc. in a very simple way. Her love for numbers was such that she could give the 23rd root of a 201 digit number in 50 seconds, which compelled the US Bureau of Standards to write a special programme into a UNIVAC 1101 computer just to check her answer.

However, producing exceptional math prodigies has not done any good to the young students studying the subject in Indian schools.

The growing state of arithmophobia in India

In spite of having an arithmetical lineage which goes back to the time of Aryabhatta, the one who brought zero into the world, there has been a decline in the number of student opting for mathematics for their higher studies in recent years. The result of all this is evidently a drop in the number of math teachers in India which has about 1.3 million schools and around 800 universities.

“Mathematics especially in India is a subject which people get scared of. This myth begins at a very early age in a student’s life. With age, the conceptuality of mathematics increases. Examinations at first make this subject more fearful. Not everyone can come up with a solution within a given time limit. Mathematics needs to be appreciated for what it is and the idea should not be to just score marks. It gets even more complicated in high school, where students have to comprehend so many things in such a less time. Thus, opting for higher studies in mathematics only cuts down to students who have developed inexplicable love for the subject,” Chirantan Chowdhury, a PhD student at University of Duisburg-Essen tells Media India Group.

The state of arithmophobia is typically triggered during school examinations and homework or simply an invitation from the teacher to solve a problem on the blackboard. It is specifically the children who seem to be unable to deal with this so-called bogey. This has been confirmed by yet another survey which was conducted by Cuemath, a  learning programme. The study found that 89 pc of parents feel that maths is the toughest subject for their children; 77 pc also blame faulty teaching methods in schools for this.

“I think the key to the issue is to strengthen your basics and then move ahead. As for the teachers to make the subject grow on the students, it’s time to come with up some interesting ideas,” says Sayani Das, research scholar, department of mathematics, IIT Madras to Media India Group.

However, it can’t be argued that the need for a high intellect in mathematics has more to do with just acing board exams. Learning math is a necessity that India right now just can’t afford to overlook. Higher level mathematical proficiency is needed in almost all areas of research and development along with industry, which includes engineering, production, information technology and the space sciences. The poor performance of Indian students in basic math shows that despite having inherited a profound heritage in math, the Indian education system has let us down in getting the knack of it. Thus, completing 90 years of producing a mind like Shakuntala Devi’s is a right-on-time reminder for us to put an end to this arithmophobia once and for all.

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