February 07, 2013, 11:29 AM — By now, you’ve probably heard about Dr. Curtis Cooper, the fine gent at the University of Central Missouri who’s been credited with the discovery of the largest prime number yet found. It’s a number with more than 17 million digits. Dr. Cooper has, in fact, discovered three of the four largest prime numbers known. If you need a really big prime number, he’s your guy.
Image credit: flickr/niehoff
If you’re not familiar with Dr. Cooper because you’re not immersed in the world of mathematics or haven’t yet joined a prime number discovery fantasy league, rest assured that you’ll soon be seeing a lot more of him. Expect a steady stream of Cooper-mania in the coming months, between endorsements, talk show appearances and red carpet sightings. Can a fling with Beyoncé be far off? Watch out, Jay-Z!
Here’s the thing, though: you could be the next Dr. Cooper. That’s right; your face could be the one that People magazine puts on its cover when an even bigger prime number is discovered. You don’t need a PhD in mathematics or even a pocket protector to do it. All you need is a relatively modern working computer with a few free CPU cycles and occasional Internet access.
And the best part: you could win $3,000 - or more - for finding the next really really really big prime number.
Dr. Cooper discovered his latest ginormous prime number by participating in the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS), a distributed computing project to find Mersenne prime numbers. Mersenne primes are a special class of prime numbers, in that they can be written as numbers that are one less than a power of two (i.e., 2^p - 1). In Dr. Cooper’s case, his latest discovery was p=57,885,161, or 2^57,885,161 - 1.
Anyone can sign up and volunteer his or her computer to be used to search for Mersenne primes. You just download the GIMPS software, install and let it rip. It runs in the background as a low priority job; you’ll never even notice it. It can run on Windows, Mac, Linux and Unix computers, even fairly old ones. It just needs 32MB of memory, 50MB of disk space and to be left on more often than off. It doesn’t even need a constant Internet connection; it just needs to connect to a central server and send a few hundred bytes of data each week. That’s it!
The search for these big primes can take some time. Each test of a potential prime number can take a month, or longer. If your system finds a new Mersenne prime, it’ll alert the central GIMPS server and an attempt will be made to verify your number using other computers (which can also take a while).
If it turns out you found a new one, then you'll win fame, glory and a Research Discovery Award from GIMPS. If your new prime number is fewer than 100,000,000 digits, you’re eligible for a $3,000 award (as Dr. Cooper is). However, if you find a Mersenne prime with 100,000,000 or more digits - take a deep breath here - then you’re eligible for a $50,000 award from GIMPS.
Not too shabby, right, just for running some software in the background on that old Windows 98 desktop that you’re using as an office footstool?
So, what are you waiting for? Fame, (small) fortune and, possibly, Beyoncé, could be yours! Don’t let Dr. Cooper hog all of the prime number glory (and cash). Get going!
Are you already participating in GIMPS? Do you have a favorite prime number? Please share in the comments.