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Today: Spring 2013 - University of Central Missouri

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The Thrill of the Search

UCM's Curtis Cooper leads the search
for the world's largest prime number.

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By Mike Greife

The search was worldwide, involving thousands of people who utilized the best sophisticated technology available. They all had a common goal—to find the next in the series of the world's largest prime numbers.

For Curtis Cooper, professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of Central Missouri, the search was nothing new. Cooper, along with Steven Boone, professor of chemistry, had made the 2004 discovery of the then-largest prime number, and Cooper made another in 2005.

Curtis Cooper Photo

When the Great International Mersenne Prime Search project, also known as GIMPS, announced in February 2013 that Cooper had discovered the latest in the series of world's largest prime numbers, 2 multiplied by itself 57,885,161 times, minus 1, Cooper was no less excited than he had been with the previous two discoveries. The response by media worldwide made him an international celebrity, but he is quick to make it clear that he did not make the discovery alone.

Cooper has been a participant in the GIMPS project since 1997. The organization was formed in 1996 by George Woltman to discover the world-record size Mersenne prime numbers. Woltman developed the software that allows personal computers to test Mersenne numbers for primality. In 1997, Scott Kurowski set up the Primenet server to automate the search, enabling GIMPS to harness the power of hundreds of thousands of ordinary computers.

The partnership with GIMPS allowed Curtis to make use of more than 1,000 computers across the UCM campus, running nonstop for 39 days, to make the most recent search. The actual discovery was made by computer #22 in the Wood Building computer lab at 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 25, 2013.

"When we first started the project in 1997, we were running the search on four computers across campus, and I had to monitor them manually several times a day," Cooper said. "Current technology has allowed us to expand our search effort, and I've had a lot of support, not only from my own department, but also from the university administration. Technology Services has allowed me to be administrator on all of these machines so I can manage the search."

For Cooper, the search is about the challenge of applying number theory to a search for something that has never been known. However, he acknowledges that the attention generated by the latest prime number also is interesting. He has been interviewed on the British Broadcasting Corporation, National Public Radio and the Colbert Report, and University Relations staff members have recorded media hits from around the world.

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