It took five years to discover a prime number larger than the last record holder.
Mathematically speaking, there is an infinite allotment of prime numbers, it's just that finding new ones requires some heavy duty number crunching. Curtis Cooper, a mathematician at the University of Central Missouri, has found three of them through the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS), a distributed computing project like Folding@Home and SETI, but with the sole goal of discovering Mersenne prime numbers. Cooper's latest find is 17,425,170 digits long.
That demolishes the previous one discovered in 2008, which was 'only' 12,978,189 digits long. Cooper's figure is 2 raised to the 57,885,161 power minus 1, an extraordinarily long figure that's only divisible by 1 and itself.
"It's analogous to climbing Mt. Everest," George Woltman, the computer scientist who created GIMPS, told Scientific American. "People enjoy it for the challenge of the discovery of finding something that's never been known before."
What's special about Cooper's newest find is that it's a Mersenne prime number, which takes the form of 2 raised to the power of a prime number minus 1. Including this one, only 48 examples have been discovered in the past 350 years.
Cooper's find doesn't really do anything to advance mathematics in any meaningful way, but it does give him some serious bragging rights among fellow researchers, along with a $3,000 prize from GIMPS.