6 Amazing Facts From an Amazing Obituary of a 'Human Computer'

When confronted with the story of Shakuntala Devi there's one question everyone asks: "How does she do it?"
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The New York Times has up a gem of an obituary, 500 words chock-full of wonderful bits about its subject, a mathematician by the name of Shakuntala Devi, who passed away in Bangalore on Sunday at the age of 83.

Devi's mathematical prowess earned her the moniker "human computer." Her feats were extraordinary, and the non-math details of her life that the Times provides only add color to a life of accomplishments. Here's a rundown of some of the best factlets:

  • "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."
  • Three years later, she earned herself a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records when she multiplied two 13-digit numbers (7,686,369,774,870 and 2,465,099,745,779) *and* articulated the solution (26-digits: 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730) in just 28 seconds.
  • A 1976 article about her described her abilities thusly: "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."
  • Not once but twice while on tour in Europe -- one time on the BBC, the second at the University of Rome -- her quizzers pronounced her wrong, and then were forced to admit to calculation errors in their own work.
  • "Her father was a trapeze artist and lion tamer in a circus."
  • And, according to the Times, she "was also a successful astrologer, cookbook author and novelist."

A 1990 article from the journal Intelligence explored "the question everyone asks": "How does she do it?"

Her own answers, he continued, were "rather inconsistent" and, I'd add, unsatisfactory:, including: "a gift from God," "an inborn gift," "I think anyone could do it if they loved numbers the way I do,"and "Perhaps anyone could do it if they had played with numbers for hours every day since early childhood."

The author, Arthur R. Jensen of the University of California, Berkeley, speculated that Devi's abilities stemmed not from "any unusual basic capacities" but from a totally different "encoding and retrieval" process in her long-term memory. He wrote:

Although Devi is not, strictly speaking, a mnemonist, one may infer from the speed of her solutions that memory must play an important part in her skill. It is apparently not the "working memory" that is most exceptional, but the long-term memory (LTM), which must be extremely well stocked with highly over-learned and efficiently organized numerical information and various calculating algorithms. In short, for Devi the basic information processing limitations of normal working memory capacity have been largely overcome in the numerical domain by unusually efficient encoding and retrieval of numerical information in LTM. Devi's use of this vast accumulation of numerical information and algorithms for solving problems clearly evinces all the signs of being an extreme example of what Shiffrin and Schneider (1977) have described as "automatic processing," as contrasted with "controlled processing" of information.

Jensen went on to describe Devi's process, noting that she seems to "perceive" large numbers in a way that would be foreign to the rest of us. "When she takes in a large number (and she must do this visually), it undergoes some transformation, almost instantly--usually some kind of simplification of the number. But this is not a simple 'chunking' of the number into smaller sets," Jensen wrote. She hated commas, finding that they slowed her down. But, he continued, "This is not to say that Devi does not break up or analyze large numbers into some kind of numerical components, but only that she does not use any uniform type of 'chunking' on every number."

Whatever that ability was, and whatever it was that drove her to hone it and perfect it, is something to marvel at, admire, and, perhaps, now miss.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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