Really Big And In His Prime

Back when I played football I used to make a facetious remark that always furrowed the brow of my fellow gridiron warriors; When asked why I wore #97, I always replied that #97 was just like me – big and in its prime baby.

Looks like I was selling prime numbers severely short. A German eye surgeon and his office computer made the news last month when he discovered the largest prime number yet calculated. Dr. Martin Nowak’s prime number, 225,964,951–1 is an enormous number, but larger number will eventually be found. There is an infinite number of primes, but they become rarer and rarer as numbers increase.

Primes are the building blocks of numbers, and they are the magic number that drives the internet. Encryption and cryptography are built around prime numbers, using the strange fact that it is easy to multiply two prime numbers together (13×7=?) but much harder to decipher what prime numbers created a product (323=?×?). Go ahead, figure those out. I’ll wait…

Bet it took a longer to uncover what two number produce 323? It sure ain’t 13 and 7 is it? Took me about five minutes with a spreadsheet to come up with the answer. Imagine how long it takes to tease out the prime numbers from a number with 7,816,320 digits? It took Dr. Nowak’s 2.4 GHz Pentium 4 computer over 50 days to compute his prime number.

Prime numbers are intimately wound around the Riemann Hypothesis, one of the great unproved theorems in mathematics. The Riemann Hypothesis concerns the distribution of prime numbers, but in over 150 years it has remained unproven.

Dr. Nowak made his discovery as part of GIMPS, the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search. Anybody with a computer can join in the hunt and search for prime numbers on a desktop computer. Windows, Linux and FreeBSD are the primary systems for this search, but the software is available for Macs running OS X and even my venerable old Psion PDA.

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