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Music and meaning of prime numbers

Professor Marcus Du Sautoy at Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore on Monday. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Professor Marcus Du Sautoy at Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore on Monday. Photo: K. Murali Kumar  

Why did Beckham choose the number-23 shirt? How is 17 the key to the evolutionary survival of a strange species of cicada? The answers could be found in the world of prime numbers, “the atoms of arithmetic,” believes Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford.

But while prime numbers (indivisible numbers such as Beckham's 23) may be the fundamental building blocks of arithmetic, they remain the “most tantalising enigmas in the pursuit of human knowledge” and seem scattered randomly through the universe of numbers in no apparent pattern, he explained in his lecture “The Music of the Primes” on Monday.

Finding the “biggest prime” has been the mathematician's obsession for over 2,000 years, said Professor du Sautoy, who admittedly “only ever uses prime number buses” and has tried three times to get a prime number for his London phone (there is a one in 15 probability of a prime eight-digit number). The largest prime, discovered not too long ago by the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search has 13 million digits.

“Irregular heart beats”

Prime numbers are like “irregular heart beats,” getting more unpredictable and rarer as they get bigger, he said. He took his small, but riveted, audience through the history of the quest for a pattern in primes — from Euclid (350 to 350 BC) who said there were “infinite many primes” to Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) whose obsession it was to find patterns in them, and finally Georg Friedrich Bernard Riemann (1826-1866) who discovered “music” and hidden harmonics behind the primes.

Primes are not just “beautiful numbers” they are today integral to governments, to e-commerce and to security agencies. “They are the ultimate tool to understand the past and predict the future,” he said.

Professor du Sautoy was awarded the Royal Society's Faraday Prize in 2009, U.K.'s premier award for excellence in communicating science and earlier listed as one of the “100 most influential people under 40” in Britain.

The talk was part of the lecture series organised by the U.K. Science and Innovation Network and the Indian Institute of Science.

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2020 9:26:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/bangalore/Music-and-meaning-of-prime-numbers/article16299807.ece

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