Why prime numbers still fascinate mathematicians, 2,300 years later

Primes still have the power to surprise. Credit: Chris-LiveLoveClick/shutterstock.com

On March 20, American-Canadian mathematician Robert Langlands received the Abel Prize, celebrating lifetime achievement in mathematics. Langlands’ research demonstrated how concepts from geometry, algebra, and analysis could be brought together by a common link to prime numbers.

When the King of Norway presents the award to Langlands in May, he will honor the latest in a 2,300-year effort to understand prime numbers, arguably the biggest and oldest data set in mathematics.

As a mathematician devoted to this “Langlands program,” I’m fascinated by the history of prime numbers and how recent advances tease out their secrets. Why have they captivated mathematicians for millennia?

How to find primes

To study primes, mathematicians strain whole numbers through one virtual mesh after another until only primes remain. This sieving process produced tables of millions of primes in the 1800s. It allows today’s computers to find billions of primes in less than a second. But the core idea of the sieve has not changed in over 2,000 years.

Read more: Why prime numbers still fascinate mathematicians, 2,300 years later

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