FedEx Finance Manager Finds Needle in a Haystack
As a finance manager with FedEx, Jon Pace understands probability and statistics quite well. That’s precisely why he didn’t believe a recent email that popped up in his inbox.
Merry Christmas! One of your computers reports that it has found a new Mersenne prime.
A prime number is a number that can only be divided by 1 and itself. Although an infinite amount of prime numbers exist, there was something unique about this particular one: it was more than 23 million digits long, making it the largest prime number known to man.
Pace made this discovery through his work as a volunteer with The Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS), a computing project designed to find ever increasingly large prime numbers.
With the use of special software designed by GIMPS founder and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate George Woltman, volunteers like Pace have spent years testing thousands of numbers for Mersenne primes, primes that are one less than a power of two.
“In the 14 years I’ve been involved, only 10 [Mersenne] primes have been found,” Pace said. “The odds of finding one are about 1 in 500,000.”
Pace is credited with the discovery of the 50th known Mersenne prime, 277,232,917-1. It is nearly one million digits longer than the previous record, which was discovered in 2015.
The GIMPS project has progressed so much in recent years that it has surpassed the practical application of these extraordinarily large numbers. However, large prime numbers are often used for encryption purposes and securing our increasingly digital-dependent lives. Pace noted that Mersenne primes will be very useful as computer technology becomes more powerful.
For now, Pace remains amazed that he found the needle in the haystack after 14 years of searching.
“It’s cool,” he said. “That’s the credit I’ll give it.”
Upon verification of Pace’s discovery, Woltman recommended he prepare himself for interviews.
“I thought ‘Who would want to interview me?’” Pace said.
The story has been picked up by NPR, Fortune, Newsweek and Popular Science as well as a host of STEM trade publications and local news stations in Memphis, Tenn. where Pace lives and works.
Pace’s son, a senior in college, is familiar with his dad’s participation in GIMPS but wasn’t overly impressed at first with the discovery.
“As soon as he found out NPR had scheduled an interview [with me], suddenly it was a big deal,” Pace said. “If NPR cares, he figures I must have done something important.”
Meanwhile, Pace’s email inbox has exploded and his phone has been ringing off the hook with people from around the world seeking to congratulate him.
While he appreciates the interest in this story, Pace admitted that he is not used to the attention.
“If I liked attention, this would be fantastic,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve been told to enjoy my 15 minutes of fame while it lasts.”
Pace hopes this discovery will encourage others to join the search for the next largest Mersenne prime. All you need is a computer, the GIMPS software and a lot of luck.
“My record will be broken faster the more people who are looking,” Pace said. “I can’t wait until someone finds the next one.”
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August 7, 2017
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