Crack the Code

Math whizzes Junhyun Lim ’21 and Shaunak Mashalkar ’21 used their time stuck inside to find a solution to a challenging math problem.

Crack the Code

Renowned mathematician Carl Pomerance, a visiting professor to SCU’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, challenged his number theory class to solve a problem. And he sweetened the deal with a $620 prize.

The challenge: Find a positive prime number that meets certain conditions or prove it doesn’t exist.

It’s more than just a game. Testing for prime numbers is important in cryptography, the study of secure communication techniques or, you know, secret codes. Cryptography uses mathematical techniques to increase computer security and hide data. If a prime number like the one the students sought is found it would create a fast way of making codes.

Junhyun Lim ’21 and Shaunak Mashalkar ’21 asked math and computer science professor Ed Schaefer for help.“We thought we could find such a number fairly quickly, or disprove it fairly quickly,” says Lim. “Alas, this actually turned out to be an undertaking of several quarters.”

Mashalkar says “the most surprising part of the problem was the sheer amount of data we were dealing with everyday. In most STEM fields, large numbers are thrown around constantly, but rarely do you get a sense of their magnitude.”

The team found new methods for creating many Fibonacci pseudoprimes, one of the types of numbers they sought. They tested more than 2 billion to see if any met the other condition of the challenge. None did, but they co-authored an article about their search and their innovative methods, and the piece will run in The Fibonacci Quarterly, a journal once published at SCU.

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