The Summer 2017 Mathematics A To Z: Prime Number


Gaurish, host of, For the love of Mathematics, gives me another topic for today’s A To Z entry. I think the subject got away from me. But I also like where it got.

Summer 2017 Mathematics A to Z, featuring a coati (it's kind of the Latin American raccoon) looking over alphabet blocks, with a lot of equations in the background.
Art courtesy of Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comic Newshounds. He has a Patreon for those able to support his work. He’s also open for commissions, starting from US$10.

Prime Number.

Something about ‘5’ that you only notice when you’re a kid first learning about numbers. You know that it’s a prime number because it’s equal to 1 times 5 and nothing else. You also know that once you introduce fractions, it’s equal to all kinds of things. It’s 10 times one-half and it’s 15 times one-third and it’s 2.5 times 2 and many other things. Why, you might ask the teacher, is it a prime number if it’s got a million billion trillion different factors? And when every other whole number has as many factors? If you get to the real numbers it’s even worse yet, although when you’re a kid you probably don’t realize that. If you ask, the teacher probably answers that it’s only the whole numbers that count for saying whether something is prime or not. And, like, 2.5 can’t be considered anything, prime or composite. This satisfies the immediate question. It doesn’t quite get at the underlying one, though. Why do integers have prime numbers while real numbers don’t?

To maybe have a prime number we need a ring. This is a creature of group theory, or what we call “algebra” once we get to college. A ring consists of a set of elements, and a rule for adding them together, and a rule for multiplying them together. And I want this ring to have a multiplicative identity. That’s some number which works like ‘1’: take something, multiply it by that, and you get that something back again. Also, I want this multiplication rule to commute. That is, the order of multiplication doesn’t affect what the result is. (If the order matters then everything gets too complicated to deal with.) Let me say the things in the set are numbers. It turns out (spoiler!) they don’t have to be. But that’s how we start out.

Whether the numbers in a ring are prime or not depends on the multiplication rule. Let’s take a candidate number that I’ll call ‘a’ to make my writing easier. If the only numbers whose product is ‘a’ are the pair of ‘a’ and the multiplicative identity, then ‘a’ is prime. If there’s some other pair of numbers that give you ‘a’, then ‘a’ is not prime.

The integers — the positive and negative whole numbers, including zero — are a ring. And they have prime numbers just like you’d expect, if we figure out some rule about how to deal with the number ‘-1’. There are many other rings. There’s a whole family of rings, in fact, so commonly used that they have shorthand. Mathematicians write them as “Zn”, where ‘n’ is some whole number. They’re the integers, modulo ‘n’. That is, they’re the whole numbers from ‘0’ up to the number ‘n-1’, whatever that is. Addition and multiplication work as they do with normal arithmetic, except that if the result is less than ‘0’ we add ‘n’ to it. If the result is more than ‘n-1’ we subtract ‘n’ from it. We repeat that until the result is something from ‘0’ to ‘n-1’, inclusive.

(We use the letter ‘Z’ because it’s from the German word for numbers, and a lot of foundational work was done by German-speaking mathematicians. Alternatively, we might write this set as “In”, where “I” stands for integers. If that doesn’t satisfy, we might write this set as “Jn”, where “J” stands for integers. This is because it’s only very recently that we’ve come to see “I” and “J” as different letters rather than different ways to write the same letter.)

These modulo arithmetics are legitimate ones, good reliable rings. They make us realize how strange prime numbers are, though. Consider the set Z4, where the only numbers are 0, 1, 2, and 3. 0 times anything is 0. 1 times anything is whatever you started with. 2 times 1 is 2. Obvious. 2 times 2 is … 0. All right. 2 times 3 is 2 again. 3 times 1 is 3. 3 times 2 is 2. 3 times 3 is 1. … So that’s a little weird. The only product that gives us 3 is 3 times 1. So 3’s a prime number here. 2 isn’t a prime number: 2 times 3 is 2. For that matter even 1 is a composite number, an unsettling consequence.

Or then Z5, where the only numbers are 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4. Here, there are no prime numbers. Each number is the product of at least one pair of other numbers. In Z6 we start to have prime numbers again. But Z7? Z8? I recommend these questions to a night when your mind is too busy to let you fall asleep.

Prime numbers depend on context. In the crowded universe of all the rational numbers, or all the real numbers, nothing is prime. In the more austere world of the Gaussian Integers, familiar friends like ‘3’ are prime again, although ‘5’ no longer is. We recognize that as the product of 2 + \imath and 2 - \imath , themselves now prime numbers.

So given that these things do depend on context. Should we care? Or let me put it another way. Suppose we contact a wholly separate culture, one that we can’t have influenced and one not influenced by us. It’s plausible that they should have a mathematics. Would they notice prime numbers as something worth study? Or would they notice them the way we notice, say, pentagonal numbers, a thing that allows for some pretty patterns and that’s about it?

Well, anything could happen, of course. I’m inclined to think that prime numbers would be noticed, though. They seem to follow naturally from pondering arithmetic. And if one has thought of rings, then prime numbers seem to stand out. The way that Zn behaves changes in important ways if ‘n’ is a prime number. Most notably, if ‘n’ is prime (among the whole numbers), then we can define something that works like division on Zn. If ‘n’ isn’t prime (again), we can’t. This stands out. There are a host of other intriguing results that all seem to depend on whether ‘n’ is a prime number among the whole numbers. It seems hard to believe someone could think of the whole numbers and not notice the prime numbers among them.

And they do stand out, as these reliably peculiar things. Many things about them (in the whole numbers) are easy to prove. That there are infinitely many, for example, you can prove to a child. And there are many things we have no idea how to prove. That there are infinitely many primes which are exactly two more than another prime, for example. Any child can understand the question. The one who can prove it will win what fame mathematicians enjoy. If it can be proved.

They turn up in strange, surprising places. Just in the whole numbers we find some patches where there are many prime numbers in a row (Forty percent of the numbers 1 through 10!). We can find deserts; we know of a stretch of 1,113,106 numbers in a row without a single prime among them. We know it’s possible to find prime deserts as vast as we want. Say you want a gap between primes of at least size N. Then look at the numbers (N+1)! + 2, (N+1)! + 3, (N+1)! + 4, and so on, up to (N+1)! + N+1. None of those can be prime numbers. You must have a gap at least the size N. It may be larger; how we know that (N+1)! + 1 is a prime number?

No telling. Well, we can check. See if any prime number divides into (N+1)! + 1. This takes a long time to do if N is all that big. There’s no formulas we know that will make this easy or quick.

We don’t call it a “prime number” if it’s in a ring that isn’t enough like the numbers. Fair enough. We shift the name to “prime element”. “Element” is a good generic name for a thing whose identity we don’t mean to pin down too closely. I’ve talked about the Gaussian Primes already, in an earlier essay and earlier in this essay. We can make a ring out of the polynomials whose coefficients are all integers. In that, x^2 + 1 is a prime. So is x^2 - 2 . If this hasn’t given you some ideas what other polynomials might be primes, then you have something else to ponder while trying to sleep. Thinking of all the prime polynomials is likely harder than you can do, though.

Prime numbers seem to stand out, obvious and important. Humans have known about prime numbers for as long as we’ve known about multiplication. And yet there is something obscure about them. If there are cultures completely independent of our own, do they have insights which make prime numbers not such occult figures? How different would the world be if we knew all the things we now wonder about primes?

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The Summer 2017 Mathematics A To Z: Gaussian Primes


Once more do I have Gaurish to thank for the day’s topic. (There’ll be two more chances this week, providing I keep my writing just enough ahead of deadline.) This one doesn’t touch category theory or topology.

Summer 2017 Mathematics A to Z, featuring a coati (it's kind of the Latin American raccoon) looking over alphabet blocks, with a lot of equations in the background.
Art courtesy of Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comic Newshounds. He has a Patreon for those able to support his work. He’s also open for commissions, starting from US$10.

Gaussian Primes.

I keep touching on group theory here. It’s a field that’s about what kinds of things can work like arithmetic does. A group is a set of things that you can add together. At least, you can do something that works like adding regular numbers together does. A ring is a set of things that you can add and multiply together.

There are many interesting rings. Here’s one. It’s called the Gaussian Integers. They’re made of numbers we can write as a + b\imath , where ‘a’ and ‘b’ are some integers. \imath is what you figure, that number that multiplied by itself is -1. These aren’t the complex-valued numbers, you notice, because ‘a’ and ‘b’ are always integers. But you add them together the way you add complex-valued numbers together. That is, a + b\imath plus c + d\imath is the number (a + c) + (b + d)\imath . And you multiply them the way you multiply complex-valued numbers together. That is, a + b\imath times c + d\imath is the number (a\cdot c - b\cdot d) + (a\cdot d + b\cdot c)\imath .

We created something that has addition and multiplication. It picks up subtraction for free. It doesn’t have division. We can create rings that do, but this one won’t, any more than regular old integers have division. But we can ask what other normal-arithmetic-like stuff these Gaussian integers do have. For instance, can we factor numbers?

This isn’t an obvious one. No, we can’t expect to be able to divide one Gaussian integer by another. But we can’t expect to divide a regular old integer by another, not and get an integer out of it. That doesn’t mean we can’t factor them. It means we divide the regular old integers into a couple classes. There’s prime numbers. There’s composites. There’s the unit, the number 1. There’s zero. We know prime numbers; they’re 2, 3, 5, 7, and so on. Composite numbers are the ones you get by multiplying prime numbers together: 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, and so on. 1 and 0 are off on their own. Leave them there. We can’t divide any old integer by any old integer. But we can say an integer is equal to this string of prime numbers multiplied together. This gives us a handle by which we can prove a lot of interesting results.

We can do the same with Gaussian integers. We can divide them up into Gaussian primes, Gaussian composites, units, and zero. The words mean what they mean for regular old integers. A Gaussian composite can be factored into the multiples of Gaussian primes. Gaussian primes can’t be factored any further.

If we know what the prime numbers are for regular old integers we can tell whether something’s a Gaussian prime. Admittedly, knowing all the prime numbers is a challenge. But a Gaussian integer a + b\imath will be prime whenever a couple simple-to-test conditions are true. First is if ‘a’ and ‘b’ are both not zero, but a^2 + b^2 is a prime number. So, for example, 5 + 4\imath is a Gaussian prime.

You might ask, hey, would -5 - 4\imath also be a Gaussian prime? That’s also got components that are integers, and the squares of them add up to a prime number (41). Well-spotted. Gaussian primes appear in quartets. If a + b\imath is a Gaussian prime, so is -a -b\imath . And so are -b + a\imath and b - a\imath .

There’s another group of Gaussian primes. These are the numbers a + b\imath where either ‘a’ or ‘b’ is zero. Then the other one is, if positive, three more than a whole multiple of four. If it’s negative, then it’s three less than a whole multiple of four. So ‘3’ is a Gaussian prime, as is -3, and as is 3\imath and so is -3\imath .

This has strange effects. Like, ‘3’ is a prime number in the regular old scheme of things. It’s also a Gaussian prime. But familiar other prime numbers like ‘2’ and ‘5’? Not anymore. Two is equal to (1 + \imath) \cdot (1 - \imath) ; both of those terms are Gaussian primes. Five is equal to (2 + \imath) \cdot (2 - \imath) . There are similar shocking results for 13. But, roughly, the world of composites and prime numbers translates into Gaussian composites and Gaussian primes. In this slightly exotic structure we have everything familiar about factoring numbers.

You might have some nagging thoughts. Like, sure, two is equal to (1 + \imath) \cdot (1 - \imath) . But isn’t it also equal to (1 + \imath) \cdot (1 - \imath) \cdot \imath \cdot (-\imath) ? One of the important things about prime numbers is that every composite number is the product of a unique string of prime numbers. Do we have to give that up for Gaussian integers?

Good nag. But no; the doubt is coming about because you’ve forgotten the difference between “the positive integers” and “all the integers”. If we stick to positive whole numbers then, yeah, (say) ten is equal to two times five and no other combination of prime numbers. But suppose we have all the integers, positive and negative. Then ten is equal to either two times five or it’s equal to negative two times negative five. Or, better, it’s equal to negative one times two times negative one times five. Or suffix times any even number of negative ones.

Remember that bit about separating ‘one’ out from the world of primes and composites? That’s because the number one screws up these unique factorizations. You can always toss in extra factors of one, to taste, without changing the product of something. If we have positive and negative integers to use, then negative one does almost the same trick. We can toss in any even number of extra negative ones without changing the product. This is why we separate “units” out of the numbers. They’re not part of the prime factorization of any numbers.

For the Gaussian integers there are four units. 1 and -1, \imath and -\imath . They are neither primes nor composites, and we don’t worry about how they would otherwise multiply the number of factorizations we get.

But let me close with a neat, easy-to-understand puzzle. It’s called the moat-crossing problem. In the regular old integers it’s this: imagine that the prime numbers are islands in a dangerous sea. You start on the number ‘2’. Imagine you have a board that can be set down and safely crossed, then picked up to be put down again. Could you get from the start and go off to safety, which is infinitely far away? If your board is some, fixed, finite length?

No, you can’t. The problem amounts to how big the gap between one prime number and the next largest prime number can be. It turns out there’s no limit to that. That is, you give me a number, as small or as large as you like. I can find some prime number that’s more than your number less than its successor. There are infinitely large gaps between prime numbers.

Gaussian primes, though? Since a Gaussian prime might have nearest neighbors in any direction? Nobody knows. We know there are arbitrarily large gaps. Pick a moat size; we can (eventually) find a Gaussian prime that’s at least that far away from its nearest neighbors. But this does not say whether it’s impossible to get from the smallest Gaussian primes — 1 + \imath and its companions -1 + \imath and on — infinitely far away. We know there’s a moat of width 6 separating the origin of things from infinity. We don’t know that there’s bigger ones.

You’re not going to solve this problem. Unless I have more brilliant readers than I know about; if I have ones who can solve this problem then I might be too intimidated to write anything more. But there is surely a pleasant pastime, maybe a charming game, to be made from this. Try finding the biggest possible moats around some set of Gaussian prime island.

Ellen Gethner, Stan Wagon, and Brian Wick’s A Stroll Through the Gaussian Primes describes this moat problem. It also sports some fine pictures of where the Gaussian primes are and what kinds of moats you can find. If you don’t follow the reasoning, you can still enjoy the illustrations.