Marcus du Sautoy forecasts the future

18 November 2006

NewScientist.com news service

Marcus du Sautoy

The next 50 years hold the real prospect that we might finally reveal the secrets behind prime numbers. Primes, the indivisible numbers like 17 and 23, are the atoms of mathematics. Every other number is built by multiplying these numbers together.

Mathematicians have wrestled for 2000 years to understand how nature chose these enigmatic numbers. As you count higher and higher through the universe of numbers, it seems impossible to predict where you are going to find the next prime. They appear as wild as lottery numbers. Deeply frustrating for the pattern searcher.

In the past 150 years, though, we have gained new insights into these numbers. Scientists have picked up strange resonances between the primes and energy levels in heavy nuclei of elements such as uranium. These new connections provide the hope that the next generation of mathematicians will finally discover the hidden template to explain the distribution of these numbers.

Mally