Prime Numbers Reveal the Practicality of Impracticality

Understanding primes can lead to many applications, but overemphasizing them has its perils


If your favorite number is 712, mathematician Andrew Granville will quickly compute that 712 is 2 times 356, 4 times 178, 8 times 89, or 2 times 2 times 2 times 89. “Every number has a unique way of being written down as a product of primes,” Granville says. “When we study an object in chemistry, we go to atoms; in biology, we go to DNA. For number theorists, it is prime numbers.”

Granville says prime numbers are an example of a deep mathematical idea with the potential to transform other realms of research. But he cautions that an overemphasis on practicality can be dangerous.

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