Shakuntala Devi, Mathematics Prodigy

Courtesy of The New York Times “Times Machine”:


“She forgot, momentarily, that she had visited the United States once before, 20 years
ago, but 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 seconds, she added five rows. of eight digit numbers and then multiplied the result by any five digit number of your choice. All in her head. Shakuntala Devi, a mathematical prodigy from Bangalore, India, was in town.
Wrapping her shimmering blue and green sari more closely around her as she
paced back and forth last week in front of 80 employees of the State Bank of India at
460 Park Avenue, Mrs. Devi solved more than a score of complicated mathematical
problems in the time it took to think of the query.
Mrs. Devi’s demonstration of her quick ability to solve in her head mathematical
problems involving addition, multiplication and division, using algorithms — mental
mathematical shortcuts that even she cannot explain —was one that she had made
hundreds of times in many parts of the world.
“This is my first visit to the United States,” she told an interviewer at the bank
just before her performance. When reminded that the press had reported her
previous visit in 1952 to Washington and New York, she conceded that her memory
had been faulty.
Standing a few feet from the bank’s Burroughs Model 1700 pomputers; which
were used to pose questions and verify her answers. Mrs. Devi, who has difficulty
remembering her birth date, explained her capabilities. In addition to “normal” math problems, she said, she can do square and cube roots and logarithms in her head and recall the days of the week of any given dates in the last century and dredge up dates and days of the week from calendars long past, given the proper base information.

“I have to start with the simple problems first,” she told the banking employees.
The first query, asking for the cube root of 13.824. was answered in a flash:
“Twenty four.” she said. Then came larger numbers:: The cube root of 188,132,517? “Five hundred seventy three.” An assistant bank manager manipulated an electronic calculator.
“Correct,” he said. Then came lines of eight and nine digit numbers, which were added and then multiplied by a large number. Answers came in seconds.
“What day of the week was Sept. 2, 1951?” “Sunday,” came the correct response.
Mrs. Devi is now on a tour of the eastern United States, hoping to sell a manuscript on mathematical shortcuts to a publisher.
According to mathematical scientists, Mrs. Devi’s gift as a numerical math
prodigy is not unique and has no relevance to the science of mathematics.
Nevertheless, according to these mathematicians, people with her abilities do not
grow on trees, or even abacuses. It is not known how people gifted with these
abilities perform their feats.
Many people, since the time of Isaac Newton, have demonstrated extraordinary
powers of. mathematical calculation and given demonstrations sintilar to those of
Mrs. Devi’s.
Occasionally, questioners have tried to trip them up. One of the most famous of
the Wizards, the late Zerah Colburn, a Vermonter, was asked at one of his London
performances. “How many bulls’ tails would it take to reach the moon?’
Mr. Colburn is reported to have paused briefly before answering, “One, if the
tail is long enough.”

Stay Curious!

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