NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - In 28 seconds, Shakuntala Devi can multiply two 13-digit numbers. Called the “human computer,” Devi wows her audience with her unusual numerical skill — a gift she realized at the age of three.
Her father used to perform tricks in schools and while accompanying him. Aged six, she calculated the cube-root of a 15-digit number in her head in seconds, catapulting her to global attention.
Today, at 67, Devi has traveled the world, showcasing her talent and meeting celebrities.
She spoke to Reuters on maths and her future plans:
Q. Can you do a calculation for me?
A. No. I do that only when I have an audience. What I can, however, is I can tell you the day you were born. What is your date of birth?
Q. January 29, 1971
A. (in a second) Friday. You were born on a Friday.
Q. That is correct. How do you do this?
A. It is just that from childhood I’ve been doing it. It comes naturally to me.
Q. What are your future plans?
A. I am going to start a mathematics centre in Bangalore. It will be an international centre for mathematics. People from all over the world will come for seminars and workshops.
Q. You are also planning a film. What is it about?
A. I am looking for a producer to produce the film. I have written a book called “In the Wonderland of Numbers”. It’s about a young girl, Neha, who is very poor in mathematics but in a series of illusory experiences, she becomes a great mathematician.
Q. Have you ever faced a problem ... someone in the audience asked you to calculate something and could not?
A. No, it hasn’t happened so far.
Q. Which is the most difficult calculation you have done?
A. It was the one I did at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas. I took out the 23rd root of a 230-digit number. That was the most difficult problem.
Q. Is there a mathematical problem waiting to be solved?
A. So far I have not had any such thing. I am looking for it and soon I am leaving for a world tour. It is actually a fund raising tour because I need money to put up my institute.
Q. How does the mind work when it is at rest, or is it never at rest?
A. I relax completely when I’m at rest. I don’t think of numbers, I don’t think of work.
Q. Do numbers come to you when you travel?
A. Yes, then it comes. When I see a taxi, I like to draw an equation immediately. I like to draw a calculation. That I can’t stop even if I try.
Q. What is the best way of teaching mathematics?
A. Make it pleasant. Make it enjoyable — show to the children that mathematics is a part of your life. If they say ten men can do a piece of work in six hours, how many men would it take to do the same work in three hours? They don’t know who the men are or what the work is. They feel completely unrelated. On the other hand, make it a part of you, then it is different. I have been running maths clubs for children completely free. In my building in Bangalore I conduct maths clubs for several months and every child who attended the club was poor in mathematics and is now showing brilliant results.
Q. What can you claim ... you are faster than what?
A. I don’t claim anything. I am too humble. I believe in humility. I believe in living a simple life. I look around me, there is so much poverty, destitution in the country, I don’t feel like living a posh life. I don’t even possess a car. I ride in auto-rickshaws because I like to be a part of the masses. I don’t want to single myself out as someone up and above.
Q. Do you think your services can be required somewhere in the scientific research field?
A. No, that would be very boring for me. I like to be in contact with people.