Mathematica and Mersenne Primes
In June 1999 an international group of mathematicians, computer
scientists, and hobbyists, who had joined under the banner of the Great
Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS), discovered that
prime. The number is currently the largest known prime. The discoverers are
officially listed as N. Hajratwala, G. Woltman,
and S. Kurowski, the first person being the volunteer whose machine actually
found the prime and the latter persons being the software/network
architects. This prime is 2,098,960 decimal digits long and therefore
qualifies for a $50,000 prize from the
Foundation. One interesting sidelight is that in the early 1990s
Mathematica played an important part in making the discovery
First some historical perspective: prime numbers of the form
2q-1 are named "Mersenne primes" after the French monk
Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), who discussed them in correspondence with
the great Fermat. Mersenne primes have long played an important role in
theory--for example, in the theory of so-called perfect numbers and in
cryptography, where certain algebraic fields enjoy efficient,
Mersenne-based arithmetic. Though Mersenne primes have been studied for
centuries, many fundamental questions remain, including whether an infinite
number of them exist.
The only way to determine whether a very large number is really prime is to
run a so-called primality test, which in the case of Mersenne primes can be
an efficient manifestation called the Lucas-Lehmer test. The Lucas-Lehmer
test involves the squaring of giant numbers--numbers with thousands or
millions of digits.
For such arithmetic, the underlying algorithm--an "irrational base discrete
weighted transform" (IBDWT)--was developed in the
early 1990s by R. Crandall at Reed College and NeXT, Inc., using
Mathematica as a prototyping environment. It was this algorithm
that Woltman cast in the mid-1990s as an assembler variant, thus
completing the prototyping/development cycle for which
Mathematica is ideal.
The idea of the IBDWT is to expand giant numbers in an irrational base. One
then applies a discrete weighted transform--a variant of the classical
FFT--to multiply or square numbers in this base with unprecedented speed.
As Crandall puts it:
"Mathematica is an ideal environment for the requisite mixing of
symbolics and numerics and the kind of interactive exploration
that leads to such a new, nonstandard algorithm."
A prime-number wall poster, showing all decimal digits (more than two
million of them) for the record prime number is available from Perfectly Scientific, Inc.