The Largest Prime Number and Other Prime Mysteries

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By Andy T

the largest prime number
The ALMA supercomputer in northern Chile

Ever since Greek geometer Euclid proved there were an infinite amount of prime numbers around 300 BC, mathematicians have been searching for the largest prime number ever, or at least one that is infinitely higher than the last.

Apart from the fact they simply exist, this ceaseless search for prime numbers (numbers divisible only by one and themselves) is fuelled by the mystery that surrounds them, as a closer look suggests they underpin the current of life.

Firstly, they’re known to create intricate patterns in nature, while they’re believed to be connected to energy levels of complex quantum systems.

In one example, the cicada aptly known as Magicicada is known to live consistently by the rule of prime numbers, only emerging from its life as a dirty subterranean grub after 13 or 17 years.

Its emergence during prime years allegedly gives it a 2% greater chance of survival over a 200 year period (ensuring its continued existence), as it avoids predators appearing every 2, 4, 6 or 12 years.

NASA scientist and author Carl Sagan also lived by prime numbers, for a short while, persuasively imagining they could be used to communicate with aliens, as did PHD physicist and author Paolo Giordano, who concluded they are “outsiders” with his novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers.

Such attributes are confirmed through the prime’s use in cryptography, where these arcane numbers keep people distant by rendering transaction protection code virtually impenetrable.

And what of this search for the largest prime number, which digit diving dorks have been clawing their way incessantly towards?

Curtis Cooper, from the University of Central Missouri, recently became the latest king of geek mountain when he found the largest prime number known, using 1,000 computers as part of the specialised Gimps (Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search) project.

The number, which is purportedly 17 million digits long, took one sophisticated computer 39 days to double check that it was indeed a prime.

Such is the urge to find an even larger number, that campaign group Electronic Frontier Foundation has pledged $150,000 to the first tenacious egghead who discovers a 100 million digit prime number, which could take years upon years.



Prime numbers.

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