Though many with superhuman abilities begin their lives as child prodigies, Shakuntala Devi, known as the human computer, had a life story that is unique even among those blessed with superpowers.
From earning a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records in the 1980s to writing everything from novels to astrology and math texts, this superhuman earned her fame living as someone straight out of a comic book.
Born in Bengaluru, India, Shakuntala Devi grew up in a rather orthodox Kannada Brahmin family– until her father ran away to join the circus rather than become a temple priest.
He worked as a lion tamer, tightrope walker, magician and trapeze artist, setting the stage for the amazing feats that his daughter would one day accomplish.
Her father was the one to discover her mathematics superpower when she was only three years old, when he was trying to teach her a card trick.
By the age of five, Devi was bringing in her family’s sole income by displaying her astounding abilities at schools or businesses, performing advanced mathematical feats while her peers were still learning to count to 50. By the time she was a teenager, she was showing off her talents in England and sending most of the profits home to support her family.
Despite her natural affinity for math (or maybe because of it), she craved the classroom experience; she longed to one day master not only the numbers that served as her friends, but also the arts, science and history.
Even into adulthood, every performance was preceded by an hour of total silence. During the performances, she would ask for the audience’s numbers– dates of birth, primarily. Within seconds, she was able to accurately calculate which day of the week they were born. She could also list off the precise dates of every Wednesday in any given year without batting an eyelash.
What is her Superpower?
Devi’s abilities went far beyond party tricks.
On a special on CBS, she astounded a famous magician named Ricky Jay by easily extracting roots from nine and ten digit numbers. She would look at the number on a chalkboard (uninterrupted by any commas– she preferred to see a number look like 900342865, finding the brokenness of 900,342,865 distracting), shrug, and rattle off the exact answer.
Devi grew bored with being asked how she was able to do such impressive calculations in her head, and each time she would answer that it was a simple, automatic response. She was born with the ability to crunch numbers, she said.
What Can We Learn From Her?
Devi’s humble (though peculiar!) origins are a reminder to us that awe-inspiring people and talents can come from anywhere.
As she clearly demonstrated throughout her life, you can master just about anything you’ve got a talent for, even without a formal education. Education, Devi’s life suggests, is not a prerequisite for greatness. Her life also serves as an awe-inspiring reminder of the capabilities of the human brain.
With the blink of an eye, Devi was able to solve equations that most of us would take at least five minutes to clumsily enter into our calculators. Because her father saw her ability and made sure she used it, she grew into an adult with a superpower that would wow millions.
Revisiting Numbers with Shakuntala Devi
What is She Currently Doing?
As she grew older, Devi dove into astrology, booking up to sixty clients every day to predict their futures using the numerical equations found within astrology.
Her daughter often spoke of her shocking ability to predict the future– whether a pregnancy would result in a boy or a girl, whether a marriage would fail, and even which businesses would take off.
Unfortunately, Devi died at the age of 83 on April 21st, 2013 of heart and kidney problems, after a two-week hospital stay. Her life was commemorated in November of 2013 with one of Google’s Doodles, which celebrated the day that she would have turned 84.
Videos and Links
Shakuntala on Wikipedia
India’s Human Computer Shakuntala Devi
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