UCM professor’s big prime number discovery has bragging rights

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WARRENSBURG, Mo. -- Math class flashback: Do you remember prime numbers?

A University of Central Missouri professor is somewhat of a mathematical celebrity when it comes to prime numbers, a number that is evenly divisible only by one or itself: for example 2, 3, 5, 7. Mathematicians around the globe are constantly searching for the world's biggest prime number -- and that's where Dr Curtis Cooper comes in.

"It's like we climbed mount everest and found something big and beautiful," says Dr Cooper.

Cooper and his team now hold the world record for finding the largest Mersenne Prime, or "elite" type of prime number in the world. They did it thanks to about a thousand computers at the University of Central Missouri all running the software calculating the equations.

The discovery happened Jan. 25 at 5:30 p.m., but Dr Cooper said he had just left work and was tired so he didn't check his email until the next morning. That's when he found out that his computers had hit the jack pot.

At 17,425,170 digits long, it's officially the biggest known prime number. That's a record UCM is getting used to holding.

"Central Missouri had the record in 2005 and 2006 and UCLA broke it in 2008," says Dr Cooper, "and now we reclaimed the record in 2013."

Other than just being a cool discovery, Cooper says it also proves that this process of giving a big problem to lots of microcomputers around the globe could work to solve other mathematical or scientific problems.

"Maybe someone could find out if they want to analyze the AIDs virus or cure cancer and have data they need analyzed, they could farm it out and maybe that would be a use," he says.

But for now, the discovery is just about bragging rights, the kind of thing worth a mention on national news and comedy shows, like the Colbert Report. Colbert said on his show that the mathematician found the largest prime number and also "discovered he's very lonely."

Dr Cooper laughed at that comment, and says no, he's not lonely.

"No my wife was watching and said 'he doesn't know you,'" he said laughing.

And for all this work, UCM's reward is a check for $3,000 from the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, also known as GIMPS.

Since the numbers are getting so big now and the calculations take so long, they're not expecting another prime number to be discovered for at least 5 to 7 years.

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