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."