While reading online news I came across an interesting (to a very small portion of the population) article entitled, Computer Finds new Math “Jewel” in the Rough from the NPR site. I should have known better than to go to NPR, but that’s another issue. What is this story about you ask? It details the discovery of the latest number representing the 47th Mersenne Prime number. Impressed? Yeah, that’s about how I reacted, too. Wait it gets even better – these people have their own association called Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search or GIMPS. I’m sorry, I could do so much with this, but I’ll leave you to your own humorous devices on the name alone or we’ll be here forever while I make stupid lame jokes (sorry).
We all remember our basic math – prime numbers are only divisible by the number 1 and themselves so a prime number would be 2, or 3, or 5, or 7, or so on and so on. This is heady stuff for mathematicians. For bloggers, maybe not so much. But wait…there’s more.
Apparently Mersenne primes are not just any old prime numbers. No, these are the creme de la creme of primes and a special formula is required to find them:
Does that formula mean anything to you? Nah, me either, but apparently it really turns on mathematicians – this is better than sex to them. Reading this article I found out that this started with the Ancient Greeks who were the first to describe the Mersenne primes and until recently only 46 of these numbers have been discovered. That may be due to the fact that Ancient Greeks were busy with other things like chasing after boys, and of course there were some interesting little pieces of literature from that time, but I digress.
Recently a computer (a very big computer, not your average Dell) computed the most recent Mersenne prime (although it’s not the largest it’s the most recent – figure that one out) and it is almost 13 million digits long. That’s right I said 13 million numbers. That’s like taking a crayon and writing numbers on every wall surface in my house and I still wouldn’t get to 13 million. I can’t conceive of this number, although I imagine our Government Treasury can since they use numbers like this in their stimulus packages all the time.
What boggles my mind is why someone wants to do this. What a tremendous amount of electricity, time, and effort is expended getting these huge supercomputers to multiply a 13 million digit number by a 13 million digit number and then do that about 13 million times. Okay, now I’ll give props to the guy who programmed the computer — he’s the one who knew what to look for, but let’s face it, the computer did all the work. If some Einstein guy sat down with paper and pencil or a whiteboard and did all the computations himself, then I’d be impressed. I’d be a little afraid of him, but I’d be impressed. This was the result of computers.
The guy who is getting the credit is from Norway – so maybe there IS something to the idea that fish is brain food – don’t Norwegians eat a lot of herring and cod? I’m just saying…
At the end of the article there were actual comments sent in by other NPR readers, most of whom were so smart their comments made my ears bleed. Someone noted that large Mersenne primes are only useful in number theory, purely conceptual. Well, if they aren’t going to help me balance my checkbook, I’m thinking we’re wasting some valuable computer time. Another lady wrote that the exciting part of this discovery is that “understanding mathematics is exciting because it serves as a window through which humans can understand the natural world, from viruses and bacteria to black holes and the lifespan of our sun.” I don’t think so — mathematics helps me know how much fabric to buy for my kitchen curtains and how much flour to measure for the pancakes but I’m not using my calculator to figure out the lifespan of our sun anytime in the near future. One last commenter wrote: “there is joy in unearthing what has never yet been seen, even if the discovery exists only in the mind; for some, when the discovery lies in some remote area of existence it is even more exciting.” He obviously doesn’t understand that my joy lies in unearthing the functions of my new cable remote.
The word “prime” to me relates to things such as the quality of beef, or a pump being primed, or the best seat in the movie theater for the next showing of Star Trek. Devoted Spouse would equate the word prime with readying a weapon for firing. And for those of us who are crafty “to prime” means to lay down the first coat of paint.
I passed College Algebra – that’s as prime as I get.