Wizard with numbers,student of maths

Shakuntala Devi had a passion for mathematics and a gift for sharing it

Written by Kabir Firaque | Published: April 23, 2013 1:19 am

Shakuntala Devi had a passion for mathematics and a gift for sharing it

If one went by the deceptiveness of appearances,Shakuntala Devi’s appeal to the mathematical community would have been as a calculating prodigy,rather than a mathematical genius. She undoubtedly was a genius,for the IQ benchmark of 140 is within the reach of anyone with mathematical ability. But mathematician she possibly wasn’t. Yet,this gifted woman without a formal education deserved to have fascinated that elite community,and not just because of her prodigal abilities.

What was she without those abilities? She committed a sin in science,earning out of the non-scientific practice of astrology. But ignore that for a moment and look at her reply,now being widely reported,after someone had asked her why children dread mathematics: “Because it is looked at as a subject.”

Now we’re talking. And,“Mathematics is life,you have maths in everything,right from the time of your date of birth to the food you eat and the air you breathe.” That should melt the stoniest of mathematician hearts. It’s her passion for this fine art,combined with her gift,that makes her such a fascinating subject,apart from the fact that it leaves one wondering what might have been.

She did read a lot of mathematics. Among her books on the subject,one includes that classic puzzle about a four-wheeler travelling 4,000 km by rotating its five tyres,including the spare,so that each ends up having done the same distance. If you thought that means each tyre travelled 800 km,read her explanation on why each ran 3,200 km. The puzzle was not one of her creation. It is probably as old as the four-wheel bullock cart,and remained in circulation for decades before mathematics eventually ceased to be a sport.

What she left out is no less revealing. If she read as much as she appeared to have done,she would have come across the 12-foot string with which auntie wraps a parcel,running it once lengthways,twice breadthways and,by extension,thrice along the third dimension. You may know an arithmetical/ algebraic way to find the maximum possible volume,but I can’t handle this one without using calculus,a somewhat specialised branch. This staple for puzzlists is not in any of her books.

Instead,The Book of Numbers contains endless questions and answers such as,“what is a natural number” and “what is Pascal’s triangle”,things one can find in a textbook,though these do reveal an effort to show what the author has learnt,and her willingness to share it.

She tries to share her gift too,something beyond us lesser mortals. Figuring: The Joy of Mathematics goes into her methods for the four basic operations. I once tried to look for parallels between her methods and the celebrated Trachtenberg speed system,but gave up. Shakuntala,the daughter of a circus artiste,was three when she revealed herself as a prodigy. Too young to have read Trachtenberg,she must have devised her own methods.

She shares her method for working out the day of the week for any date in the previous century,but volumes have already been written about that. What we know is she could do it with speed,probably even faster than when she beat a computer at calculating a complex cube root.

Among her puzzles,you might like one that I lifted from Figuring and reproduced in a column I used to write for The Sentinel in Guwahati. It’s about three men,one with five chapatis,one with three and one with none,who share these 8 chapatis equally. If the third man pays eight gold coins,how should the other two share these? It’s a sitter,of course. But to get to the correct answer (seven coins to the man with five chapatis,one to the man with three) I used algebra,while Shakuntala shows us how to do with arithmetic.

Wherever she lifted these from,she was at home with anything not calling for specialisation. What would she have become had she been spotted young and allowed to specialise,solving differential equations,analysing vectors,or doing a PhD? (She knew a bit of trigonometry,by the way; self-taught again,no doubt.) It couldn’t have been worse than someone born with a scientific temperament ending up as an astrologer.


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