Feats of mathematical greatness: Shakuntala Devi (1929-2013)

Maggie Jones in The New York Times:

DeviIn retrospect, it seems inevitable that the 3-year-old girl with pigtail braids would end up on the stage. Her father was a traveling magician, and for seven generations before him, the men of the family were performers of a different sort: Brahmin priests and astrologers. So when the tiny, preschool-age girl named Shakuntala Devi effortlessly memorized an entire shuffled deck of cards at one of her father’s shows, he lifted her onto a table for her debut. In another time, in another place, in another family, the child prodigy might have honed her skills with tutors and math classes. But this was the 1930s in Bangalore, India, and Devi’s family was impoverished. Stage money was fast money; education, on the other hand, was a long-term investment her parents couldn’t afford. Every morning, Devi and her father headed out on foot to display her talents at schools and businesses. At 5, when other kids were learning to count to 100, she was extracting cube roots in her head and was the family’s sole money earner. Soon she started appearing at universities throughout southern India. By her teens, she had moved to bigger stages in England, saving just enough money to pay for her room and board and sending the rest home.

By adulthood, the duty to perform and travel had become a muscle that she couldn’t rest. For more than six decades, Devi packed her suitcase, often every several weeks, for England, the United States, Hong Kong, Japan, Sri Lanka, Italy, Canada, Russia, France, Spain, Mauritius, Indonesia and Malaysia. Before each performance, she needed an hour of silence. Then as soon as Devi stepped onstage in her flowing saris, her gold jewels and her pink lipstick, she was at ease and chatty. She asked for the birth years and dates of members of the audience: In one second or so, she pinpointed the day of the week on which they were born. Or she would rattle off the dates of, say, every Monday in a given year. “Is that correct?” she would ask. Yes, it was correct. Again and again, she was correct. She wowed the magician Ricky Jay on a CBS special, “Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women,” as she extracted roots from nine- and 10-digit numbers. She liked to see the numbers on a chalkboard, without commas, which interrupted their natural flow. The cube root of 849278123? The cube root of 2186875592? Then: Click. With a small shrug of her shoulders, she had the answer. On the BBC, she teased the host, David Frost, about the simplicity of her calculations. “You’ve got it?” she said, knowing full well he didn’t. “How do you do it?” TV hosts often asked. The question bored Devi, but she didn’t show it. “It’s a very automatic reaction. . . . I was born with this gift.”

More here.