Johann Martin Zacharias Dase (1824-1861) was a German mental calculator. A man of excellent skill, he could calculate more extensively and rapidly than any other mental calculator known. Interestingly, while his unchallenged prowess lay in arithmetic, he had little knowledge or understanding of mathematical principles. Let’s learn more about this interesting man’s life story, contribution, early death, and legacy.
“There is strength in numbers, but organzing those numbers is one of the greatest challenges”– John C. Mather
Dase began attending school at the very young age of 2. While not a lot is known about his family history, it was clear that his skill was a natural one. He spent a lot of time playing dominoes and suggested that this played a significant role in developing his calculating skills.
At the young age of 15, Dase began to travel extensively, giving exhibitions in Germany, Austria, and England. He could multiply mentally two 8-figure numbers together in 54 seconds, two 20-figure numbers in 6 minutes. Additionally, he mentally multiplied two 40-figure numbers in 40 minutes and two 100-figure numbers in 8 hours, 45 mins. He could also extract the square root of a 60-figure number in an incredibly short time and the square root of a 100-figure number in 52 mins.
The Peculiar Case of Dase’s Talent
American researcher Frank Mitchell in his paper, wrote that “He seems to have been little more than a human calculating machine, able to carry on enormous calculations in his head, but nearly incapable of understanding the principles of mathematics, and of very limited ability outside his chosen field.”.
In such a peculiar way, Dase becomes even more of a unique young prodigy. One assumes that anyone who can understand numbers so well would most likely be very good at maths! But not the brilliant Dase. According to Wikipedia, the mathematician Julius Petersen tried to teach him some of Euclid’s theorems but gave up the task, realizing that its understanding was beyond Dase’s capabilities.
Contribution to Science
Dase could not hold down any other occupation, so he began to use his abilities for scientific purposes. At the young age of 16, Dase used his calculating ability to calculate π to 200 places. This was the most digits of π calculated ever at that time, only taking 2 months for him to finish.
Dase also constructed 7 figure tables of natural logarithms of the numbers at the age of 23. This task took him over 3 years to complete, which is quite the speed for such a mammoth task. He also assisted in reducing the data collected for the Prussian triangulations and completed this task within the same year, writes Maths History.
The ability to understand numbers like no other
Dase had another unique talent from a young age – he could count objects with the greatest speed and precision. With one glance, he could give the number of peas scattered on a table, the number of sheep in a herd, or of books in a shelf. This uncanny sense of quantity puts Dase in a class of excellence previously unheard of.
Death and Legacy
Dase had epilepsy from early childhood, a health problem that contributed to his very early death at the age of 37. His legacy continues through the recognition of his unique talent as a prodigious child and his contribution to arithmetic calculations. “In short, Dase’s achievements so far transcend those of any other recorded calculator that he stands in a class by himself, unapproached by any of his rivals.” – Frank Mitchell.
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