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‘Of little practical value’?

Some mathematics, pictured here being hard to illustrate in news coverage

Some mathematics, pictured here being hard to illustrate in news coverage

As the heady excitement of the dawn of a forty-eight-Mersenne-prime world dims to a subdued, albeit slightly less factorable, normality, I have taken the opportunity to see what we can learn about the British press’s attitude and ability when it comes to the reporting of big numbers ending in a 1.

Overseas readers may not be aware that the UK’s public service broadcaster, the BBC, is funded by a mandatory annual £145.50 tax on all television-owning households. Therefore, it would be disappointing if some of these funds were not channeled into reporting the discovery in at least five or six separately-produced broadcasts across the organisation’s various radio and television outlets.

I’ll start with BBC radio’s flagship news programme, Today. At 7.20 in the morning on Friday 8th, they ran an interview with the prime’s ‘discoverer’ Curtis Cooper, introduced and conducted by presenter Justin Webb. This was probably the strongest of the $2^2-1$ interviews Cooper conducted for the BBC; Webb asked the most straightforwardly sensible question: what does one actually ask the computer to do to find the primes? Cooper gave a good overview of the maths behind the GIMPS project. The interview benefitted enormously by departing from Today’s house style and not bringing in a second interviewee forced to somehow argue against the large number, in order to inject a pointless and counter-informative facade of balance into proceedings.

Cooper popped up again the previous evening (having finally obtained a prime number large enough to serve as a power source for his time machine) on the BBC World Service’s Newshour. Showing that nobody is immune to doing something mildly stupid when instructed to do so by a person with a clipboard, he acquiesced to read out a portion of the immense integer in an imbecilic made-up “seven-quinnelty-miliibong-quadro-trilli-trilli-thouswart” style, followed by the producer doing the same thing but with less fluent delivery, to the amused chortling of all. Aside from laughter at the general bigness of the number under discussion, Cooper covered most of the same points he was to reiterate the following morning, discussing the use of somewhat smaller primes in RSA encryption and the potential power of similar distributed-computing projects.

Chronic Aperiodical-hassler Matt Parker tweeted on Thursday night that he was due to appear on the World Service around the same time as Cooper – apparently, he did do an interview but it went out on World Service channels not accessible in the UK. Not, as we secretly suspected, that a strange person convinced him their living room was a BBC studio and got him to come in and talk about maths into a cardboard microphone.

A mere two hours later Cooper returned to the BBC studios for a grilling by Newsnight’s seventh-scariest presenter, Eddie Mair. To a montage of scrolling numbers and bits of miscellaneous computer kit, Mair gave a rather good potted history of the Mersenne primes (so far as is possible in forty-odd seconds), before Curtis Cooper popped up in a square over his left shoulder on the giant video-wall behind him, while what one can only assume were the digits of the quantity under discussion paraded past in the background. Either due to Newsnight’s computer memory being exhausted from storing the prime in its video-wall servers, or owing to some kind of satellite delay, the interview was plagued by a half-second lag, and Mair slightly annoyingly asked Cooper if he was “good with his tax return”, but at least got a good sense out of him of how the search actually got going and continues at his university.

The only BBC outfit to cover the story without wheeling out Cooper for a chat was Radio 4’s The World At One. Martha Kearney pulled the same trick as Today, prefacing their definition of a prime number with the disclaimer “as you will remember” to prevent the listener feeling like an idiot for not doing so. Kearney talked to Marcus du Sautoy, who was of course more interested in explaining a bit of the proper maths behind the patterns (or lack therof) in the primes than the big number itself. Kearney coined perhaps the best explanation of why people embark on this search, “for the sheer game of it”.

In the main, online coverage (which includes New Scientist, Plus Magazine and of course your own Aperiodical) has managed to correctly typeset that tricksy exponential notation and not make any inaccurate statements. Print media, in a post-Leveson world, of course had to tread carefully for fear of upsetting $2^{57,885,161}-1$’s libel lawyers. Of the mainstream newspapers, only the Telegraph and Independent seem to have even covered the story – of course, both gamely illustrated their coverage with a photo of an abacus. Coverage from The Guardian1, The Times and bastion of science and maths coverage The Sun were all sadly absent.

The Telegraph got off to a bad start with its opening paragraph (“The number, expressed as 2 raised to the 57,885,161 power minus 1, can only be divided by itself and by 1, making it by far the largest prime number ever identified”) but the rest of the article is essentially correct, but slightly annoyingly refers to ‘Mersenne primes’ on more than one occasion without any attempt to define the concept. They also used the word ‘group’ when what they really meant was ‘set’, irritating truly committed mathematical pedants.

While The Telegraph wisely avoided attempting to type the number at all, The Independent fell foul of the gods of superscript and described the number as $257885161-1$ (eagle-eyed readers may be able to spot a divisor). They also used the magnificent “formula of $2p-1$”. Superscript issues aside, their article is very readable and covers all the main points well. It’s also accompanied by a “History of Prime Numbers” section to give some further maths background. Unfortunately it’s marred by a few errors, and while I choose to assume it at least looked pretty as a little fact-box in the dead-tree version, the grim reality of HTML has sadly sucked all the formatting life out of it.

While some of the coverage has been mildly annoying, it’s at least been on the whole largely accurate (Fox News excepted). Discussion continues as to how making a big deal out of this kind of discovery affects the public image of maths – does everyone (and a great deal more than that, if this tweet is to be believed) think it’s boring, and that mathematicians are just stamp collectors? Or is it just good to have maths in any context talked about on the radio and in the papers? The comments thread on this Slate article is full of people having a conversation about mathematics (best quote: “I wonder if a positive density of elliptic curves have Q-rank >0”) which then descends into quantum physics. Of course.

At least, thanks to Euclid, we know the media has another $\aleph_0$ attempts at getting this story right.

Listen Yourself:
BBC World Service – NewsHour (starts around 18:40)
BBC Radio 4 – Today (starts at 1:18:00)
BBC Radio 4 – The World At One (starts at 42:20)
Watch the segment on Newsnight

  1. While the main Guardian newspaper had no article that we can find, the story was of course covered by lovely maths expert Alex Bellos (that is to say, an expert on maths who’s lovely, although I’m sure he knows a lot of lovely maths) and in what can only described as psychic journalism, Mersenne numbers were discussed in detail in a prescient and Numberphile-philic blog post by the Guardian’s GrrlScientist fully two days before the discovery was even made, let alone when the news broke. []

5 Responses to “‘Of little practical value’?”

  1. Andrew

    It’s no surprise to me the Independent got the superscript wrong – they still quaintly spell out “per cent” in actual letters. Although that could have been a cunning way to capitalise “100%” for emphasis.

  2. John

    I tried to make the news a little more interesting by writing a song about it, though to be honest, I’m pretty sure the actual math behind the find is much more interesting.


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