A FedEx employee in Tennessee has discovered the largest known prime number.
Germantown, Tenn., resident John Pace found the number through his volunteer work with the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS), a project that crowdsources computing power to search for a subset of prime numbers called Mersenne primes. Like a normal prime number, these can only be divided by themselves and one. What sets them apart is that they can all be expressed as the number 2 raised to a given power minus one.
The newly discovered Mersenne prime, called M77232917, can be expressed as 2 to the 77,232,917 power minus one. It’s the 50th Mersenne prime to be discovered and it’s more than 23 million digits long.
Pace might be the only person in history who went into math for the money. He told NPR, “There was a $100,000 prize attached to finding the first prime that had a 10 million digit result, and I was like, ‘Well you know, I’ve got as much chance as anybody else.’” He has been participating in the program for 14 years and this is his first discovery.
The previous longest-known prime number was discovered in January of 2016 at the University of Central Missouri. It contains 22 million digits and is also a Mersenne prime.
Large prime numbers are important for the future of computing and cyber security, and the search is already on for larger numbers: the Electronic Frontier Foundation is offering a prize of $150,000 for finding the first prime number with one hundred million digits and $250,000 for finding the first prime with one billion digits.