Discovery of new prime number brings researchers closer to elusive EFF prize

Warrensburg (Missouri) - If you've been busy after the holidays watching the grass grow, or watching mold form on your kitchen sink, or watching Fox News, and wondering to yourself, "Hey, I wonder if somebody has discovered an even greater indivisible prime number," then wonder no more. On 15 December, researchers at Central Missouri State University announced the discovery of the greatest so-called Mersenne prime number thus far known. And here it is, in all its glory:

230,402,457 - 1

What exactly drives university researchers to search for an even greater prime number than the ones we already have? Is it the constant drive to refine computer algorithms and memory-intensive processes in the quest to improve the way computers work? It could be that, but there's also a little money thing: The Electronic Frontier Foundation is offering a $100,000 prize to the first team that discovers a prime number of 10 million digits or more. (The US Government Accounting Office simply can't wait.) Sadly, the CMSU discovery falls short of that goal, weighing in at a mere 9,152,052 digits. So all the university gets for now is bragging rights, which it can claim now for the ninth time.

What is a "Mersenne" prime number, exactly? In the 17th century, a French monk named Marin Mersenne, who apparently became bored with watching mold form in his kitchen sink, and realizing that Fox News had not yet been invented, conjectured that the value of 2 raised to the power of a certain series of prime numbers in themselves, ranging up to 257, minus 1, were themselves prime. It was an astonishing discovery in an era before astonishing discoveries could be shared with the world; and being a monk, such sharing was harder still. Weighing further against the poor fellow was the fact that his discovery was actually incorrect; still, he's commemorated throughout history by the use of his name in prime numbers whose values are equivalent to powers of two, take away one.