Junior mines prime numbers, strikes gold

After diving into a mathematical rabbit hole online, junior David Stolyarov found a new hobby: discovering prime numbers.

“When I was watching videos and reading articles about [prime number discoveries], it started [my] interest in prime numbers and the curiosity, so I continued reading articles and learning various things about prime numbers,” Stolyarov said.

Large prime numbers are found using software that runs tests on the numbers to prove they are prime. Once the software discovers a prime number, it can be entered into online databases to check if it has already been found.

Discovering a new prime number is not the same as creating a new number.

“Nobody in the world knows whether [a] number is prime or not until somebody comes along and says, ‘Hey, I actually discovered that it is prime,’” said Ittay Weiss, mathematics professor at the University of Portsmouth.

Stolyarov uses a software called BOINC on his computer to find prime numbers.

“I have [BOINC] running in the background at settings that make it so I’m not destroying my computer,” said Stolyarov. “For example, I have it set so that it suspends all actions when I’m working on my computer. And when I go to school, I have it idling and it runs stuff while I’m gone.”

Stolyarov is part of an online team called the “Antarctic Crunchers” that looks for prime numbers. While on the team, he discovered three prime numbers by himself and assisted the team in finding a fourth. The numbers he found range from around 276,000 to 388,000 digits.

Prime numbers can be useful for encrypting data or creating stronger security systems, but there usually is not much utility in them after they are found, Weiss said.

According to Stolyarov, while he cannot do much with the numbers he finds, he can still upload them to a public database for others to potentially use.

“I was like, ‘There’s not much that I can do with [my number] now, but I want to cherish [my] first [prime number],’” said Stolyarov. “[Now] I get the opportunity to be like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s this cool project I’m a part of, I discovered this prime number. Isn’t it cool that this number has no factors except one and itself?’”