Set a digital clock to display in 24-hour (military) time. Each day, it will show you 211 prime numbers starting with 00:02 (2 minutes after midnight) and ending with 23:57 (3 minutes before the next midnight.)

Oh, and 211 is also prime, so 02:11 would be one of the 211 prime times you observe each day.

In my capstone class for future secondary math teachers, I ask my students to come up with ideas for engaging their students with different topics in the secondary mathematics curriculum. In other words, the point of the assignment was not to devise a full-blown lesson plan on this topic. Instead, I asked my students to think about three different ways of getting their students interested in the topic in the first place.

I plan to share some of the best of these ideas on this blog (after asking my students’ permission, of course).

This student submission comes from my former student Brittnee Lein. Her topic, from Pre-Algebra: finding prime factorizations.

• How has this topic appeared in the news?

Prime factorization is key to protecting many aspects of modern convenience. The Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic states that every number can be broken down into a sum of two prime numbers. For relatively small numbers, this is no big deal; but for very large numbers, not even computers can easily break these down. Many online security systems rely on this principle. For example, if you shop online and enter your credit card information, websites protect that information from hackers through a process of encryption.

Something for students to think about in the classroom: Can you come up with any formula to break down numbers into their prime factors?

Answer: No! That’s why encryption is considered a secure form of cryptography. To this date, there is no confirmed algorithm for prime factorization.

Prime factorization is a classic example of a problem in the NP class. An NP class problem can be thought of as a problem whose solution is easily verified once it is found but not necessarily easily or quickly solved by either humans or computers. The P vs. NP problem is one that has perplexed computer scientists and mathematicians since it was first formulated in 1971. Most recently, a German scientist Norbert Blum has claimed to solve the P vs. NP problem in this article: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/evvp34/p-vs-np-alleged-solution-nortbert-blum

• How could you as a teacher create an activity or project that involves your topic?

An activity for inquiry based learning of prime numbers and prime factorization utilizes pop cubes. Students will start out with a single color-coded cube representative of the number two (the first prime), they will then move up the list of natural numbers with each prime number having its own color of cube. The composite numbers will have the same colors as their prime factors. The idea is that students will visually see that prime numbers are only divisible by themselves (each being a lone cube) and that composite numbers are simply composed of primes (multiple cubes). A good point of discussion is the meaning of the word “composite’. You could ask students what they think the word ‘composite’ means and what word it reminds them of. This leads into the idea that every composite number is composed of prime numbers. This idea comes from online vlogger Thom Gibson and the RL Moore Inquiry Based Learning Conference. Below is a picture demonstrating the cube idea:

This foundational idea can be segued into The Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic and then into prime factorization.
One of the most practical real-world applications of prime factorization is encryption. This activity I found makes use of prime factorization in a way that is interesting and different from simply making factor trees. This worksheet would be a good assessment and challenge for students and mimics a real –world application.

• How does this topic extend what your students should have learned in previous courses?

Though not actually ‘reducing’ the value of a number, prime factorization is the equivalency of numbers broken down into their smallest parts and then multiplied together. The idea of reducing numbers goes all the way back to elementary school when students are learning about fractions. Subconsciously they use a similar process to prime factorization when reducing fractions to simplest form. When reducing fractions to simplest form, the numerators and denominators themselves may not both necessarily be prime, but when put into simplest form, they are relatively prime. Being able to pick out factors of numbers –another relatively early grade school concept (going back to multiplication and division) — plays a huge deal in both fractions and prime factorization.

Here’s a tale of one the great mathematicians of all time that I heard for the first time this year: the great mathematician published a mistake… which, when it occurs today, is highly professionally embarrassing to modern mathematicians. From Mathematics in Ancient Greece:

In a paper published in the year 1774, [Leonhard] Euler listed [1,000,009] as prime. In a subsequent paper Euler corrected his error and gave the prime factors of the integer, adding that one time he had been under the impression that the integer in question admitted of the unique partition

but that he had since discovered a second partition, namely

,

which revealed the composite character of the number.

See Wikipedia and/or Mathworld for the details of how this allowed Euler to factor .

I love hearing and telling tales of legendary mathematicians. Today’s tale comes from Frank Nelson Cole and definitely comes from the era before calculators or computers. From Wikipedia:

On October 31, 1903, Cole famously made a presentation to a meeting of the American Mathematical Society where he identified the factors of the Mersenne number 2^{67} − 1, or M_{67}. Édouard Lucas had demonstrated in 1876 that M_{67} must have factors (i.e., is not prime), but he was unable to determine what those factors were. During Cole’s so-called “lecture”, he approached the chalkboard and in complete silence proceeded to calculate the value of M_{67}, with the result being 147,573,952,589,676,412,927. Cole then moved to the other side of the board and wrote 193,707,721 × 761,838,257,287, and worked through the tedious calculations by hand. Upon completing the multiplication and demonstrating that the result equaled M_{67}, Cole returned to his seat, not having uttered a word during the hour-long presentation. His audience greeted the presentation with a standing ovation. Cole later admitted that finding the factors had taken “three years of Sundays.”

The twin prime conjecture (see here, here and here for more information) asserts that there are infinitely many primes that have a difference of 2. For example:

3 and 5 are twin primes;

5 and 7 are twin primes;

11 and 13 are twin primes;

17 and 19 are twin primes;

29 and 31 are twin primes; etc.

While most mathematicians believe the twin prime conjecture is correct, an explicit proof has not been found. Indeed, this has been one of the most popular unsolved problems in mathematics — not necessarily because it’s important, but for the curiosity that a conjecture so simply stated has eluded conquest by the world’s best mathematicians.

Still, research continues, and some major progress has been made in the past few years. (I like sharing this story with my students to convince them that not everything that can be known about mathematics has been figure out yet — a misconception encouraged by the structure of the secondary curriculum — and that research continues to this day.) Specifically, it was recently shown that, for some integer that is less than 70 million, there are infinitely many pairs of primes that differ by .

From the category “This Is Completely Useless”: here’s what a 15-square puzzle looks like when you arrange the tiles in order of how many factors they have.

I’m doing something that I should have done a long time ago: collecting a series of posts into one single post.

When I was researching for my series of posts on conditional convergence, especially examples related to the constant , the reference Gamma: Exploring Euler’s Constant by Julian Havil kept popping up. Finally, I decided to splurge for the book, expecting a decent popular account of this number. After all, I’m a professional mathematician, and I took a graduate level class in analytic number theory. In short, I don’t expect to learn a whole lot when reading a popular science book other than perhaps some new pedagogical insights.

Boy, was I wrong. As I turned every page, it seemed I hit a new factoid that I had not known before.

In this series, I’d like to compile some of my favorites along with the page numbers in the book — while giving the book a very high recommendation.

Let denote the number of positive prime numbers that are less than or equal to . The prime number theorem, one of the most celebrated results in analytic number theory, states that

.

This is a very difficult result to prove. However, Gamma (page 172) provides a heuristic argument that suggests that this answer might be halfway reasonable.

Consider all of the integers between and .

About half of these numbers won’t be divisible by 2.

Of those that aren’t divisible by 2, about two-thirds won’t be divisible by 3. (This isn’t exactly correct, but it’s good enough for heuristics.)

Of those that aren’t divisible by 2 and 3, about four-fifths won’t be divisible by 5.

And so on.

If we repeat for all primes less than or equal to , we can conclude that the number of prime numbers less than or equal to is approximately

Though not a formal proof, it’s a fast way to convince students that the unusual fraction ought to appear someplace in the prime number theorem.

When I researching for my series of posts on conditional convergence, especially examples related to the constant , the reference Gamma: Exploring Euler’s Constant by Julian Havil kept popping up. Finally, I decided to splurge for the book, expecting a decent popular account of this number. After all, I’m a professional mathematician, and I took a graduate level class in analytic number theory. In short, I don’t expect to learn a whole lot when reading a popular science book other than perhaps some new pedagogical insights.

Boy, was I wrong. As I turned every page, it seemed I hit a new factoid that I had not known before.

In this series, I’d like to compile some of my favorites — while giving the book a very high recommendation.