The Thrill of the Search
UCM's Curtis Cooper leads the search
for the world's largest prime number.
"For me, it's kind of like art," he said. "Some people can look at art and interpret it in many ways, while others see a pretty picture. There's something exciting about finding something in the scientific world that no one else has discovered. The publicity is really nice, and I'm glad GIMPS and UCM can receive the recognition, but for me, it's about the process."
Then there is the sheer size of the number.
"I like to tell people that one billion is a pretty big number---it has 10 digits," he added. "This thing we found has 17 million digits. It's hard for me to comprehend a number that size. If you print it out at 75 digits per line and 50 lines per page, it's more than 4,600 pages. That kind of gives you a little bit of the idea."
Cooper's parents were both educators, and he always knew he would enter education at some level. His father was a college professor, and his mother was an elementary teacher. After moving several times as his father taught in Nebraska, Minnesota and Kansas, the family settled in Joplin, Mo., where his father taught at Missouri Southern State University.
After graduating from high school in Joplin, Cooper received his bachelor's degree in mathematics and headed for graduate school at Iowa State University, where he received his master's and doctoral degrees. His first and only teaching job at UCM came about as a result of a family friendship.
"My father had been good friends with Dr. Harold Sampson when they both were at Nebraska Weslyan," Cooper said. "My father was teaching at Missouri Southern, and Dr. Sampson, who was dean of the graduate school here at the time, was in Joplin recruiting. He asked how I was doing, and Dad told him I was finishing my Ph.D. looking for a job."
Sampson replied there was an opening in the Department of Mathematics at what was then CMSU. Keith Stumpff, then chair of the department, hired Cooper, who is completing his 35th year at UCM.
"My minor was in computer science, but that was enough for them to trust me with developing the program," Cooper said. "Computer science has changed a lot since 1978. Everyone worked with punch cards and waited for time on the mainframe. We developed courses in operating systems and data base and compiler construction, but it was really kind of in its infancy compared to what it is now."
He continues to teach computer science at UCM, but is on half-time release to serve as editor of the Fibonacci Quarterly, a number theory journal that circulates worldwide. He also finds time for running, tennis, and volunteering with his wife at KCPT, the public television station in Kansas City, doing tallies during pledge drives.
The discovery of the Mersenne prime numbers has been a highlight of Cooper's career, but his true passion remains in the education of young minds in mathematics and computer science.
"I'm hopeful that some of my passion kind of rubs off on them," he said. "They see what I do, and hopefully they'll get the passion. I try to instill my love of math and computer science in them so that they see if they work hard, if they spend the time doing research and learning, they can have the same successes."
For Cooper, his career satisfaction comes from the environment in which he has been allowed to teach and learn at UCM.
"I watched my parents and their successful careers, and I not only love what I do, but also the people I work with here," he added. "When I came in, I was the new kid on the block. I've worked with people like Bob Kennedy, Vince Edmondson, Al Tinsley, Ed Davenport and Hang Chen. I've lost some old friends, but I've gained some new ones. Now I guess I'm kind of the old guy."