What can you do with a 12-million-digit prime number?

The scientific world is abuzz this week with news that researchers at UCLA have discovered a prime number with more than 10 million digits. The find qualifies them for a $100,000 prize from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and undeniable geek cred, but a decidedly unscientific survey of comments from around the web concludes that the overall response to the announcement is: So what?

Not being a math whiz myself by any means, I set out to find an answer to this question. Are monster prime numbers the key to clean energy? Negative. Can you prevent space shuttle accidents with a gigundo-prime? Survey says: no. But megaprimes will help rid your golf game of that nasty slice, right? Wrong again.

When a frustrated parent questioned the importance of her daughter learning about prime numbers in school, the helpful folks at Ask Dr. Math pointed out that primes are the basis of RSA encryption. Whenever online shoppers send personal information and credit card numbers across the web, prime numbers provide the backbone of that security.

Besides keeping your identity secure, primes have long been used as a math shortcut, helping with factoring, linear equations, and other things you probably haven't thought about since high school.

But why did the EFF offer $100,000 for the first person to discover a 10-million-digit-plus prime number? The hunt for large primes requires massive computing power – the production of which is prohibitively expensive for a single organization. Distributive computing – the same kind UCLA used to find their megaprime – makes a supercomputer out of many smaller individual machines, using the web to stitch all that power together. The EFF Cooperative Computing Awards provide an incentive for everyday Internet users to contribute to solving great scientific problems.

The method is the message.

"Prime numbers are important in mathematics and encryption, but the real message is that many other problems can be solved by similar methods," EFF co-founder John Gilmore is quoted as saying on the awards' website.

So, the important question isn't "What can you do with a 12-million-digit prime number?" but "What big real-world problem can benefit from everyday people volunteering their computers for a distributed-computing project?" The answers are already popping up in the search for extraterrestrial life, predicting climate change, and many others.

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