January 19, 2018

FedEx employee discovers largest known prime number

07 January 2018, 11:55 | Darnell Patrick

FedEx Employee Discovers Largest Prime Number Ever at 23 Million Digits Long

GIMPS crack whip on plucky processor to find largest prime number

The discovery of a 1,000,000 decimal digit prime number netted the discoverer $50,000, and the 10,000,000 decimal earned $100,000.

However, the search requires complicated computer software and collaboration as the numbers get increasingly harder to find.

The newly found number has 23,249,425 digits, almost a million more than the previous record holder.

The world's largest prime number, with 23 million digits, has been discovered by a maths enthusiast from the United States as part of a collaborative prime-number hunting project.

Mersenne primes - named after the 17th century French monk Marin Mersenne who studied them - are calculated by multiplying together many twos and then subtracting one. Mersenne primes set number theorists' hearts aflutter because they can be used to generate "perfect numbers", those whose factors add up to their value.

Jonathan Pace, a 51-year-old electrical engineer from Germantown in the southern US state of Tennessee, uncovered the elusive number after running a special software for six full days. The GIMPS (Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search) worldwide research team then used four computers of other volunteers to confirm the result.

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The primality proof for the new prime number took six days of non-stop computing. To prove there were no errors in the prime discovery process, the new prime was independently verified using four different programs on four different hardware configurations. One such volunteer, Jonathan Pace, discovered M77232917 on his machine the day after Christmas. Thousands, armed with "reasonably modern" computers and Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS) software, volunteer on the project, according to the GIMPS website. While there are applications for smaller prime numbers, Caldwell explained that the larger ones fill a different need.

The person who discovers such a number will be awarded a $150,000 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation for their efforts.

The numbers seem to occur sporadically, because researchers don't fully understand the pattern they follow, he said.

Mathematics professor Curtis Cooper of the University of Central Missouri in the USA, who had found the previous highest number in January 2016, said "a bit sad that lost the record so fast" but also "really happy about GIMPS and the particular researcher who found the new number after 14 years of hard work, as hard as I did".

He emphasised the pure excitement that searching for prime numbers brings, describing the latest discovery as "a museum piece as opposed to something that industry would use".

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