Thursday, March 03, 2005

Largest Prime Number?

From The Guardian (via Tony Flood):

A German eye specialist with a keen amateur interest in mathematics has discovered the world's largest prime number after a 50-day search using his personal computer.

Now your humble correspondent is certainly no expert in number theory, but he knows that a prime number is one that is divisible only by itself and by 1, and he thinks he knows that there is no largest prime number. So he suspects that the Guardian's journalist, Luke Harding, is a sloppy writer. What Harding wants to convey is not the thought that

1. There is a largest prime number n such that Dr. Martin Nowak has discovered n

but

2. There is a prime number n such that Dr. Martin Nowak has discovered n and no prime m > n has yet been discovered.

The journalist is confusing 'the largest prime hitherto discovered' with 'the largest prime.' Could the root of this error be the widespread tendency to conflate epistemological and ontological questions? Is Harding a student of Continental philosophy?

Furthermore, why does the journalist write, "world's largest"? As opposed to what, the UK's largest?

UPDATE (4 March '05): Commenter David reports that the number can be viewed in its full glory here.