Prime numbers… truly fascinating!

Mathematics has always been an area of interest for me.  It is basically part of our everyday lives.  Everything we do, everything we see, there’s mathematics as a heartbeat governing the physics of the universe.

I’m currently reading Marcus du Sautoy’s “Music of the primes” and it is truly remarkable how strange and exotic these prime numbers, which are only divisable by 1 and themselves, are.  If you look at them: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, … it is difficult to spot any order in them.  They’re chaotic at best and not at all predictable like a series of numbers like 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, … (can you spot the logic in this list).  Yet, they are the fundamental numbers that make up all other natural numbers in mathematics.  Evey single number can be written as the product of 2 primes.  Just give it a try… for instance 221 is not a prime number, but it is made up of 2 primes, 13 and 17.

If you’re wondering where in nature these prime numbers show up (since I stated that they govern the universe as we know it), I’ll take the example of 13 and 17 above.  Both are the life cycles of 2 types of cicada that live in the same environment.  They spend all of their life in the ground, feeding on the sap of tree roots.  Then in their last year, they emerge en masse from the ground overnight, mate, lay eggs and then die.  Then it all goes quiet again…  Now why has each of these cicadas “chosen” a prime number as its life cycle?  One of the explanations might be that because their life cycles are prime, they will only “share” the forest very rarely, basically once in every 221 (13×17) years.  If their life cycles weren’t prime, but for instance 18 and 12 years, then over that same period of roughly 200 years, they would share the habitat 6 times (after 36, 72, 108, 144, 180 and 216 years respectively).

Chances are you’ve used prime numbers a couple of times today as well, while you were browsing the web.  E-commerce exists, because we have a way to secure the communication of our credit card data when we buy something online.  RSA is prime numbers in action to “scramble” the data we transmit.

Prime numbers are magical and fundamental at the same time, and will be of interest for many generations to come!  More of these books for me please!

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