The discovery of prime numbers isn’t always the type of news that makes headlines, but when the unique discovery is made in one the unlikeliest of places, like a small church located in the suburbs of Memphis, it is bound to make headlines in international news.
Church Computer Makes Huge Math Discovery
It was a dusty old church computer running a software in the background which stumbled upon one of the rarest prime numbers called Mersenne primes. The discovery marked the 50th and the biggest Mersenne prime number in the world with more than 23 million digits in it. But in order for a regular church computer to make such a massive discovery, someone must have installed the software in the first place.
It turns out that it was a FedEx financial manager named Jon Pace who brought the behemoth of a number to light. This math aficionado had been on a mission to find a Mersenne prime number for a long time and his efforts finally paid off after 14 years of searching. Pace says that there are hundreds of thousands of programmers and math-lovers around the world who are on a constant hunt to find the next biggest prime number with their state-of-the-art machinery.
The odds of his dusty old device making a discovery that others can only dream about making were astronomical, and hence he calls it a miracle – a miracle of modern science. The average rate of Mersenne discovery is very low – only one prime number every year – and the latest one discovered on January 3 by Pace broke the record of its predecessor by one million additional digits.
The Biggest Prime Number Has 23 Million Digits
The discovery of prime numbers isn’t a new phenomenon. Mathematicians have been finding these positive integers, which are only divisible by themselves and 1, since the 17th century when the term Mersenne prime was first coined by and named after a French theologian, Marin Mersenne. He initially made a list of 11 exponents ranging from 2 to 257 but as the technology progressed, it became easier and less time consuming for mathematicians to find bigger prime numbers. These numbers can be expressed by the formula 2n – 1 where n is a positive integer.
However, the formula does not work by plugging in just any integer and as the number ‘n’ gets bigger, the discovery of a Mersenne prime becomes rarer. For example, plugging in the number 2, which is the smallest Mersenne prime in the formula, will give the answer 3. But once the prime number reaches 257, which was the last exponent discovered by Marin Mersenne, the calculation goes beyond human brain capacity.
$100,000 Cash Prize
But mathematicians are fascinated by these rare numbers and in order to keep hunting for them, there is an official search group called Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search which recruits volunteer hunters interested in discovering the next biggest prime number. Jon Pace is also a member of this search and signed up as a volunteer 14 years ago and set out on a quest for this big discovery which would eventually win him a prize of $100,000. In 2008, Pace came close to finding a Mersenne prime but a UCLA computer beat him to it.
Years went by and more prime number discoveries made headlines – making Pace wonder if he would ever be able to discover one himself. At first, he was running the software on his home computer until he eventually found a job as a network administrator at a local church in Germantown and started running the software of the church’s computer system.
Following in His Mentor’s Footsteps
Pace has an MBA in electrical engineering which is an extremely high level of education for the rural community that he was raised in. He said that his love for math was inspired by one of his high school teachers who loved prime numbers and gave his students challenging math problems as a way to challenge them, which eventually equipped him with the essential skill of problem-solving. Unfortunately, the math teacher passes away a few years ago and Pace didn’t get the opportunity to share his achievement with his mentor.
The prime number was discovered on December 26, and it was the founder of GIMPS project who announced the good news to Pace through an email saying that he was eligible for the enormous cash prize. His next big goal is to find a Mersenne prime with 100 million digits which could earn him a hefty prize of $150,000.