Recent visitors to Google’s homepage were probably wondering who the bindi-wearing, sari-clad woman in today’s Google Doodle was. That’s Shakuntala Devi a former child prodigy known as the “Human Computer.”
Born in Bangalore in 1929, today would have been Devi’s 84th birthday. When her father, a trapeze artist and lion tamer with the circus, discovered that the toddler Devi could memorize numbers and solve complex math problems, he left the circus in order to showcase Devi’s mathematical ability at road shows.
The obituary The Telegraph published after her death last year highlighted the uniqueness of Devi’s talents:
Her ability to solve complicated arithmetical problems with apparent ease and astonishing speed had stunned observers since the 1970s, when her unexplained brain power made even sophisticated digital devices of the day seem inadequate by comparison. Witty and sharp-minded, she possessed exceptional powers of retention and appeared to harness the power of several mnemonic devices in her brain.
In 1988 she visited the United States, where the educational psychologist Professor Arthur Jensen tried to unlock the secret of her abilities. At Stanford University he monitored her performance in several mathematical tasks involving large numbers and subjected her to a series of tests.
When volunteers wrote problems on a blackboard, Shakuntala Devi would turn around, stare at the problem and come up with the right answer, always in less than a minute. According to Jensen, in a research study published in the journal Intelligence in 1990: “Devi solved most of the problems faster than I was able to copy them in my notebook.”
You can hear Devi in her own words in this 1996 interview:
Lakshmi Gandhi is an editor and co-founder of The Aerogram. Follow her on Twitter @LakshmiGandhi.