While students checked email, computers at CMSU were breaking mathematical records

Feb 6, 2013

While students at Central Missouri University browsed the internet and checked their email, their computers were slowly working toward a world record.  

Researchers at the Warrensburg University discovered the largest known prime number in late January, and it's a pretty big one:  if you printed it out, 17-million digit number would take up a staggering 13,000 pages of standard printer paper, according to Gizmodo (the number is 2 to the 57,8885,161st power minus 1, in case you're keeping track.)

Prime numbers are numbers that can only be divided without remainder by themselves or the number 1. 3, 7, and 11 are examples.  Warrensburg researchers were searching for a particular kind of prime number called the Mersenne Prime, named for the 17th century French politician who discovered them.  There are only 48 of these numbers known.

Theoretically, you could keep finding prime numbers forever, but when you get into really large numbers, it's incredibly complex and it takes a long time and a lot of computing power.  To speed up the work, Warrensburg researchers networked about 1,000 campus computers together in such a way that students could use them to check their email while the number-hunting went on in the background, according to the AP.  

According to The New Scientist, the researchers are eligible for at $3000 cash prize from the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Foundation, which produced the networking software Warrensburg used in their search.  It might not sound like much, but the first one to find a 100,000 million-digit Mersenne Prime will nab a $150,000 from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.