Friday, July 13, 2007

Silly Primes

Not until recently has the whole prime number "culture" become a distraction to me. While a child the primes never really caught my attention. Even in college there was not much drawing me to the subject beyond the occasional newspaper headline proclaiming the exuberance of the mathematics community as some rather skinny, unkempt math geek held a new largest prime in high esteem.

One of the things that bothered me about primes is how messy they are. From the perspective of where they are on the number line one can't help but get the feeling that any equation related to their distribution is going to be ugly. Maybe I am a sucker for simplicity- just call it an eye for elegance!

Taking a look at the math culture's definition of a prime we find something like: "..a natural number that has exactly two (distinct) natural number divisors, which are 1 and the prime number itself." Oh how boring! Of course the mathematicians tell us that primes build all the other numbers. Digging around one will find this formal statement called the fundamental theorem of arithmetic. It says, "every natural number greater than 1 can be written as a unique product of prime numbers." It appears to be very, very important to mathematics- afterall, it is the fundamental theorem of arithmetic!

I must admit I didn't investigate the prime number sequence at all other than taking a quick peek at the first 100 primes. Instead, I became intensely focused on the two related definitions given above. Take a look at the words in the definition and convince yourself which words convey the most "action"- the meat of the definitions so to speak. I came up with "natural number divisors" and "unique product." Now, I must say right away that I failed calculus II so I do not profess to be a brilliant mathematician (don't worry, I took the class again with a different professor and got an passing grade). There is one thing that I do know about math and it is this: multiplication is just repeated addition.

So, I wondered what would happen if the math culture rewrote the fundamental theorem of arithmetic without using the word "product." Wouldn't that be cool- a simplified version of the definition! Maybe... just maybe... we might find some new way to think about prime numbers and make some progress on the stubborn topic.

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