This article from the Conversation dives into the quest for prime numbers. Prime numbers are crucial to encryption and private communication. The bigger the prime the safer the information:
An ongoing project – the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search – which aims to discover more and more primes of a particularly rare kind, has recently resulted in the discovery of the largest prime number known to date. Stretching to 23,249,425 digits, it is so large that it would easily fill 9,000 book pages. By comparison, the number of atoms in the entire observable universe is estimated to have no more than 100 digits.
The number, simply written as 2⁷⁷²³²⁹¹⁷-1 (two to the power of 77,232,917, minus one) was found by a volunteer who had dedicated 14 years of computing time to the endeavour.
Secrecy with prime numbers
One of the most widely used applications of prime numbers in computing is the RSA encryption system. In 1978, Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman combined some simple, known facts about numbers to create RSA. The system they developed allows for the secure transmission of information – such as credit card numbers – online.
The primal quest
It is neither safer cryptosystems nor improving computers that drove the latest Mersenne discovery, however. It is mathematicians’ need to uncover the jewels inside the chest labelled “prime numbers” that fuels the ongoing quest. This is a primal desire that starts with counting one, two, three, and drives us to the frontiers of research. The fact that online commerce has been revolutionised is almost an accident.