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FedEx Finance Manager Finds Needle in a Haystack

January 15, 2018

Jon Pace

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.”


Comments

    Michelle says:

    Great story….AWESOME photo! Whoever did that wins my respect for creativity!

    Norene says:

    Love there part where your son wasn’t impressed until NPR picked it up! So funny what impresses kids these days! Congrats! Love the matrix style image!!!!!

    Bill says:

    Congratulations, Jon! Enjoy the limelight, and be proud of your discovery. And I agree with Michelle, that is an AWESOME photo!

    Cheryl says:

    I heard this story on NPR and thought it was just great. Congratulations Jon!

    Ellen says:

    Congratulations!
    Awesome discovery.

    Contessa says:

    COOL BEANS, PHOTO IS FANTASTIC

    SHAUN HENRY says:

    CONGRATS ITS REAL AWESOME ON THE DISCOVERY KEEP UP THE REAL deal

    DAPHNE says:

    Congratulation!!! Great Job!

    Vina says:

    Congratulations!

    Berthold van der Hout says:

    Awesome! I read this in the Dutch newspaper but didn’t know about a FedEx link. However, as a mathematician by education I am obviously impressed. Congratulations with this great result!

    Sreenath J says:

    I saw this story in the news and was kicked for Jon! Kudos to your commitment towards this project outside of your day to day life and work schedule 🙂 Congratulations and enjoy the well deserved limelight!

    VB Joshi says:

    Very cool. My Kids (2 daughters 11 and 8 in STEM schools) were impressed. I actually read it in the TIME magazine …so there you go you are in TIME too!!! Congrats and looking forward to the next one.

    Nan Morgan says:

    This is just simply amazing. Congratulations! In awe 🙂

    Kartik says:

    Congratulations, Jon! Amazing, amazing discovery. This is so cool and as a math major by education any discovery w.r.t prime is huge!

    Janice R. Greer says:

    CONGRATS, Jon Pace! STEM can elevate the “cool” factor. Even for Dads #fifteenminutesoffame #proudmemphian

    Ethel says:

    Congrats! This is very, very cool!

    Cindy Compton says:

    Congratulations Jon!

    Cork says:

    Awesome! The article is much better written than other articles on web, whose writers confuse mathematical notions, talking about “the largest possible prime” and about “using mersenne primes in cryptography”. It almost beats the official release too! And the picture is really cool!

    Narayanan says:

    Congratulations, Jon! awesome! great patience and perseverance in finding a new prime.

    Gregory Foltz says:

    This story also ran on the CBS Evening News broadcast with Jeff Glor – congratulations Jon!~

    Janet Cardona says:

    wowwww super interesting! congratulations!

    SriGowri Koduri says:

    Congratulations!!! Awesome discovery

    Jancarlo says:

    nice pic

    Tim Halbert says:

    My dad was a mathematician for Boeing, and I fondly remember his fascination with prime numbers. I have continued the tradition with my son, and will share this story with him.

    rowdy thomas says:

    AWESOME times infinity

    Linda Brady says:

    WOW! Congratulations Jon! This is absolutely fantastic news…

    Robie Kasey says:

    Keep up the good work

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