BY TUMA HAJI
Large numbers are difficult to grasp, and the existence of digits extending past one million is almost unfathomable. On Dec. 26, 2017 a deacon by the name of Jonathan Pace discovered one such unfathomable number: a prime number with 23,249,425 digits, the largest prime number known to mankind.
This prime number referred to as M77232917A is not just any prime number, that is, an integer that is only divisible by one and the number itself. It’s a Mersenne prime number, which means its magnitude is equated to the function 2n – 1, where n is also a prime number. The new discovery made by Deacon Pace is the 50th known Mersenne prime and corresponds to the integer n = 77,232,917.
They are rare and difficult to discover. The Greek mathematician Euclid first discussed the existence of Mersenne primes, but the numbers were studied more in depth by French monk Marin Mersenne.
Pace used The Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS) to discover the 50th Mersenne prime. GIMPS is a client software program created by George Woltman to discover large Mersenne primes. GIMPS, also known as Mersenne Research Incorporation, is considered a 501(c)(3) science research charity.
According to the organization’s press release, “… GIMPS automatically harness(es) the power of thousands of ordinary computers to search for these ‘needles in a haystack.’ Most GIMPS members join the search for the thrill of possibly discovering a record-setting, rare and historic Mersenne prime. The search for more Mersenne primes is already underway … Anyone with a reasonably powerful PC can join GIMPS and become a big prime hunter, and possibly earn a cash research discovery award.”
Assistant professor of mathematics at Drake Christopher Porter said he agrees with GIMPS’s claim that aside from the development of important cryptography algorithms, there are “at present few practical uses for this new large prime.” Porter said the discovery is just another shoutout to human achievement that has little effect on the advancement of both mathematics and computer science.
“It’s like a novelty,” Porter said. “It doesn’t advance knowledge in any way. It’s a great achievement to be, ‘Wow! We’ve found a new number that’s a million digits longer than the previous one!’ But we don’t get new developments in theories … What’s striking about this is that it’s number 50 … with the visibility of this, more people will download the software … It’s a very collective endeavor.”
Nonetheless, prime numbers in general are important because cryptography, or the art of writing and/or solving codes, requires the multiplication of two massively large numbers to create a public key as well as a secret key in order to decrypt a message. Cryptography is based off of number theory, and all integers excluding one and zero are made up of primes.
Drake’s mathematical and computer science fields are also engaging in their own research. The combined departments recently transferred from Howard Hall to Collier-Scripps Hall for more space, enabling students and faculty to conduct better experiments. The department recently started Friday research groups. Students can engage in activities ranging from video game design to virtual realities. Porter encourages all students regardless of majors to join.
Joe Gonzalez, a computer science and digital media production major, commends the helpfulness of the faculty.
“All of them are very knowledgeable in their field and make themselves accessible to their students” Gonzalez said.
Students who are interested in contributing to the search for a new Mersenne prime should download the GIMPS software for free at www.mersenneforum.com. Students who are interested in joining a research group within the mathematics or computer science departments should contact Associate Professor of Computer Science Timothy Urness.