Prime numbers come in all sizes: They go down to single digits and grow infinitely larger. But calculating the exact quantity of the largest prime numbers in existence takes serious time and effort. Now, thanks to help from a volunteer and his computer, the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS) has identified the newest largest prime number we know of.
The prime number has 23,249,425 digits, surpassing the previous record holder by 1 million digits. It can be written as 277,232,917-1 or M77232917. Like other prime numbers, the quantity can only be divided by one and itself. But unlike some smaller primes, this one joins a special category called Mersenne primes.
Mersenne primes are found by calculating numbers to the second power and subtracting the value of one from the total. Only 50 prime numbers have been found this way, and a lot of computing power is required to uncover them.
Since 1996, GIMPS has been crowdsourcing computers to discover larger and larger prime numbers. Anyone can download their program and dedicate their unused processing power to churning out algorithms in search of the next record breaker. Volunteers whose computers successfully identify a new prime number are eligible for a cash reward of up to $3000.
The most recent winner was Jonathon Pace, a 51-year-old electrical engineer from Tennessee. His computer calculated the number M77232917 on December 26, and its prime status was independently verified by four separate computers.
GIMPS is constantly outdoing itself, with the previous largest prime announced just two years ago. If you'd like to join the effort, their prime-hunting software is free to download. But don't expect instant results: Pace was volunteering with GIMPS for 14 years before his altruism paid off.