Prime numbers

prime numbers

Partner and I share a mystical feeling about numbers. We like playing games with them, and matching them up, and making them make sense. I think both of us are convinced that there’s no such thing as a “random” number; when we watch the Rhode Island Lottery drawing in the evening, we both call out numbers in advance, as if somehow we can break the code.

And maybe someday we will.

Partner is especially taken with the Fibonacci series: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, et cetera. If you don’t see the pattern, here it is: start with zero and one, then add each pair of numbers in succession. 0 + 1 = 1. 1 + 1 = 2. 1 + 2 = 3. 2 + 3 = 5. And so forth.

You’d think that this is just a meaningless pattern, except that it’s everywhere in nature. It shows up in snail shells and the centers of sunflowers. It shows up in natural cycles. See how simple and elegant it is?:


I myself prefer prime numbers. There is something brave and tribal and mysterious about them. Mathematicians have bashed their brains against them for centuries, trying to figure out their pattern and their frequency. Every so often, someone computes the (new) “largest” prime number; it doesn’t look like there’s really a largest one, though.

And then there are the twinned primes, that follow the pattern x / x+2: 11 and 13, 29 and 31, 137 and 139. Mathematicians have proved, more or less, that there is no limit to these. They become scarcer as the numbers get bigger, but there will never be a “largest” set of twinned primes.

How about “emirp” primes? They’re prime forward and backward. 13 backward is 31. 17 backward is 71.

There are Fermat primes, and Mersenne primes, and relative primes. I love them all.

When I go to the health club, I try always to find a locker with a prime number; it’s a sad day when I have to settle for an even number (other than 2), or some sodden multiple like 51 or 57.

One of my favorite writers, Ursula LeGuin, created a whole civilization, on a planet of the star Tau Ceti, which includes mathematics as part of its religious life, and where they “chant the primes.”

Tell me how to get there, and I’ll go.

About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

2 Responses to Prime numbers

  1. starproms says:

    All fascinating Loren, but sadly not for me. Numbers are not part of my world (by choice). Maybe that’s not quite true, come to think about it. I can remember numbers e.g. telephone numbers etc. very well and I can do the hard Sudoku and Kakuro puzzles, which I enjoy but would probably prefer with letters! I like logic puzzles and can solve other puzzles which use logic in them.
    When I was in America I was fascinated by the cicadas chirruping. We don’t have them here in England at all. When I asked L about them, he told me they only surface once in every 17 years. I felt lucky because I just happened to be there at the time. Wrong! When I got back to England I saw a series of programmes on numbers. One of them detailed the habits of cicadas and how cleverly they have evolved. E.g. different types of cicadas ‘come out to play’ on different years or at different times, so that others of the same type can find each other. In order that they don’t all come out at the same time, they evolved a system, using numbers whereby they could do that and the programme went on to explain how. It was amazing. Each year when I returned to America, I heard the cicadas and I knew that each time, they wouldn’t be the same as the last time.

    • And the different kinds of cicadas have generally evolved into prime-number cycles, so that the same competitors won’t be around; a nine-year cicada won’t coincide with a seventeen-year cicada very often.

      Numbers are wonderful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: