Scientist have begun to realize that they can tackle big problems by harnessing the power of the internet to enlist “citizen scientists” to “crowdsource” their projects. The search for large prime numbers is one such project. Citizen mathematicians can become part of the search for prime numbers by joining the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS). Mersenne primes (prime numbers of the form 2^{n}-1) are extremely rare (only 48 are known).

All you need to participate is a computer, an internet connection, and patience. Simply download the GIMPS software from their website and start it running. The program runs in the background in the lowest priority, so it shouldn’t affect your computer performance. The patience is needed because you may need to run the program for weeks to complete a primality test. I downloaded the program last week and have been running it ever since, and I’m only up to 3%. It helps if you have a computer that is running most of the day. You can learn more about the math involved in the primality testing on the GIMPS math page.

And, if just knowing that you are helping advance the field of mathematics isn’t enough to entice you, there is also a $3,000 cash award to participants finding a prime having fewer than 100,000,000 digits and a $50,000 award to the first participant to find a prime with greater than 100,000,000 digits.

Mersenne primes are named for Marin Mersenne (1588– 1648), French theologian, philosopher, mathematician and music theorist.

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