New special class of prime discovered through computer

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

There are only 47 Mersenne primes known, and the newest has nearly 13 million digits.

A computer professional in Norway, with the help of an online computing project, has discovered a new Mersenne prime. This sought-after number represents the 47th Mersenne prime discovered since ancient Greek mathematicians first uncovered them.

These primes are called the "jewels" of number theory, and it takes a huge computing system about two or three weeks to test a single number to see if it could lead to a Mersenne prime.

For those of you for whom basic math is a distant memory, a reminder:

Primes are numbers that are divisible by only the number 1 and themselves. So 2 is prime; so are 3, 5, 7 and so on. The year 2003 was a prime year, and 2011 will be as well.

Mersenne primes are a special class of prime, and they have a particular formula.

The formula for finding Mersenne primes.

The number n is a prime, and the result is prime. And what makes the Mersenne primes so interesting is how rare they are. And their gargantuan size.

Ancient Greek mathematicians were the first to describe Mersenne primes, and, up until now, only 46 had been discovered. This most recent one — though not the largest — is a whopper at nearly 13 million digits long.


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