Prime numbers get a really rough deal in schools. They’re often brushed over or bunched together with triangle and square numbers for a single hour lesson if they’re lucky.
“A prime number is divisible by itself and one, such as? … Great, that’s that one sorted”
Prime numbers deserve more attention. Below is a nice version (ish) of the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic, proven in 300BC by Euclid the Rock God of Maths (unofficial title). Not only that, but it’s also a kind of version of the Sieve of Eratosthenes. The theorem states that every whole number greater than 1 is either a prime or a product of primes. In other words each natural number is built from a unique set of prime numbers (You can of course, derive a number’s unique combination of prime factors by using a factor tree blah blah you knew that bit.). Whereas the Sieve of Eratosthenes is a (fairly laborious) method of finding primes, by finding all the multiples of a prime (known as composite numbers), then moving along to the next number that wasn’t marked by any prime before it. It was quite handy back in the day to find low prime numbers.
There are other sieves too. The sieve of Atkin who later went on to create a crazy diet (err, wrong Atkin), the sieve of Sundaram and Euler’s sieve, which is basically the same as the Sieve of Eratosthenes. All of these sieves suffer the same stumbling setback – they take ages to find primes much larger than a few hundred. And primes become much more sporadic the further up the number line you dare to tread.
Anyhoo, the fact that prime numbers are essentially the basis of all other numbers makes them rather special. They are considered the ‘atoms’ of mathematics. If we knew them all we could make a kind of Periodic Table for maths. Sadly we don’t. But that’s also why primes are so fun.
Their mystery also makes them appealing. Is there a prime pattern?
If you fill out a 10 x 10 grid with prime numbers, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s nothing spectacular to behold:
but if you change that grid to 6 across …
Oooh… patterny. Everything (bar 2 primes) is now in two distinct columns. That’s because primes can’t be multiples of 3, or even numbers, so that leaves numbers one above and one below multiples of 6. Of course not ALL numbers one above or one below 6 are primes otherwise we’d have this whole prime thing pretty nailed by now.
But there IS a pattern. And it’s so close… yet so far.
Throughout history people have cracked pieces of the puzzle. One of the most famous examples is by Marin Mersenne in the 17th Century. He claimed to have found a large quantity of prime numbers using the formula although a lot of them were later proven to not be prime numbers. However, any number that fits that formula and *isn’t* prime, still gets the fancy title of ‘Mersenne Number’. The ones that *are* prime numbers get the fancier title of ‘Mersenne Prime‘. Despite the minor errors along the way, a Mersenne Number is far more likely to be prime than any other randomly selected number.
There are also further mysteries surrounding ‘Twin Primes‘. These little buggers are pairs of prime numbers that have a difference of 2. Such as 37 and 39, 3 and 5,
3,756,801,695,685 x 2666689 + 1 and 3,756,801,695,685 x 2666689 – 1…
Are there infinite twin primes? Nobody knows. In fact, the gap between primes excites mathematicians a lot too (they’re very excitable people). The Riemann Hypothesis generalises the distribution of prime numbers, and is possibly the most coveted conundrum in mathematics. Solve it, and have your name written in gold in the world of mathematics forever. When the British mathematician G. H. Hardy went on a dangerous sea voyage in the 1920’s, he sent a note claiming to have proven the Riemann Hypothesis, apparently so that God would not allow him to die.
Surely God would smite him for being a big fat liar?? Anyway…
And so finally we come to the Ulam Spiral. The Ulam spiral is a visual representation of integers, like this:
…which when you look only at the primes, reveals a distinct pattern. Explained nicely (again) by those clever folk over at numberphile in the video clip below (watch full screen):
Are you not fascinated by these bizarre creatures yet? I’m not talking about Dr James Grime, I’m talking about prime numbers.
Are prime numbers useful in society? Sure, Prime Factorisation is the basis of some common methods of cryptology. Essentially, use very large numbers that are the product of two prime numbers (known as a semiprime) as ‘locks’ and their prime factors as ‘keys’.
Something that often stumps people is why ‘1’ isn’t a prime number. Well, it used to be but it was considered so useless (prime factorisation can become infinitely long for example) and required so many special case exclusions, that mathematicians finally succumbed and changed their minds about it.
I’ll leave you with this: There is currently a $250,000 prize for the first person to discover the first billion digit prime. Good luck with that. It at least gives you an indication of the excitement that undiscovered primes cause in mathematicians.