What do mathematicians do for fun?
This is not a trick question. Don't believe those stereotypes that mathematicians are too serious to have fun.
Searching for new Mersenne Prime numbers brings them joy, for instance. These are numbers named for a 17th-century French scholar who identified quite a few of them. To this point, only 46 such numbers had ever been found.
A prime number is a number that can be divided only by itself and the number 1. The number 4, for instance, would not be a prime number, because it can be divided by three numbers: 4, 2 and 1.
The lowest prime numbers are 3, 7 and 11. You can divide 11 by 11, and 11 by 1 - but no other whole number. Mersenne Prime numbers are special in a way that no layman could ever explain. All Mersenne numbers are prime numbers, but not all prime numbers are Mersenne numbers; let's leave it at that!
The latest Mersenne number was unearthed by administrator Edson Smith and his team of mathematicians at the University of California in Los Angeles. And here it is:
316-470-269-330-255. Actually, that's just the first 15 digits! The full number has almost 13 million digits. The last three are 5-1-1, in case you'd like to try filling in the rest of the 12-plus million or so digits in between.
If you do happen to dabble in higher math, the new Mersenne Prime number can be written, in exponential form, as: 243112609.
Naturally, the UCLA math whizzes used computers - 75 of them! For their efforts, they may well win a $100,000 international prize that's on the table for anyone who could identify a Mersenne Prime number with at least 10 million digits.
Edson Smith explains the quest thusly: People look for Mersenne Primes for the same reasons that people climb mountains, sail unknown seas and explore the cosmos. It's a challenge!
By the way, this new prime number was the eighth to be discovered at UCLA, where mathematicians are really having fun.
Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.