Shakuntala Devi


My instruction has, I’d like to think, a reasonable degree of academic rigor. If pressed, however, I might concede that it’s not daily I transport students to the boundaries of human mental ability. Shakuntala Devi’s Telegraph obituary gives us a glimpse.

Known as “the human computer,” she could, upon hearing your date of birth, tell you its day. In about the time it takes to fish out your phone and find the right app, she mentally calculated 7,686,369,774,870 x 2,465,099,745,779.

Ms. Devi, for whom the term “gifted” seems dissatisfyingly vague, had no conventional schooling, and attributed her powers to divine endowment. Still, she sought to share what she could: “I cannot transfer my abilities to anyone, but I can think of quicker ways with which to help people develop numerical aptitude.”

The obituary mentioned “mnemonic devices in her brain,” so, after sharing the mnemonics in ours,* we created one for those words forbidden to start sentences (because, but, when, and, and so).** One girl coined this one, my favorite:

Bees, Bugs, Worms, And Slugs

Her obituary also taught us the vocabulary prodigy, prowess, aptitudeinnate, and cognitive. 


To explain what a cognitive test was, I showed them the above problem, allowing that I hadn’t yet figured out the solution. Most students got it very quickly, thereby offering a glimpse of their mental abilities, and mine.

*I’d never heard “Never Eat Soggy Waffles” before. The kids all knew it. It’s for the cardinal directions.

**Yes, I know “FANBOYS” already exists, but the day I see a student start a sentence with nor will probably be the day I mentally calculate the product of two 13-digit numbers.