Formula for primes

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In number theory, a formula for primes is a formula generating the prime numbers, exactly and without exception. No such formula which is efficiently computable is known. A number of constraints are known, showing what such a "formula" can and cannot be.

Formula based on Wilson's theorem[edit]

A simple formula is

, for positive integer .

By Wilson's theorem, is prime if and only if . Thus, when is prime, the first factor in the product becomes one, and the formula produces the prime number . But when is not prime, the first factor becomes zero and the formula produces the prime number 2.[1] This formula is not efficient as a way to generate prime numbers because of the huge numbers involved.

Formula based on a system of Diophantine equations[edit]

Because the set of primes is a computably enumerable set, by Matiyasevich's theorem, it can be obtained from a system of Diophantine equations. Jones et al. (1976) found an explicit set of 14 Diophantine equations in 26 variables, such that a given number k + 2 is prime if and only if that system has a solution in natural numbers:[2]

The 14 equations α0, …, α13 can be used to produce a prime-generating polynomial inequality in 26 variables:


is a polynomial inequality in 26 variables, and the set of prime numbers is identical to the set of positive values taken on by the left-hand side as the variables a, b, …, z range over the nonnegative integers.

A general theorem of Matiyasevich says that if a set is defined by a system of Diophantine equations, it can also be defined by a system of Diophantine equations in only 9 variables.[3] Hence, there is a prime-generating polynomial as above with only 10 variables. However, its degree is large (in the order of 1045). On the other hand, there also exists such a set of equations of degree only 4, but in 58 variables.[4]

Mills' formula[edit]

The first such formula known was established by W. H. Mills (1947), who proved that there exists a real number A such that, if


is a prime number for all positive integers n.[5] If the Riemann hypothesis is true, then the smallest such A has a value of around 1.3063778838630806904686144926... (sequence A051021 in the OEIS) and is known as Mills' constant. This value gives rise to the primes , , , ... (sequence A051254 in the OEIS) This formula has no practical value, because very little is known about the constant (not even whether it is rational), and there is no known way of calculating the constant without finding primes in the first place.

Wright's formula[edit]

Another prime-generating formula similar to Mills' comes from a theorem of Wright. He proved that there exists a real number α such that, if

for ,


is prime for all .[6] Wright gives the first seven decimal places of such a constant: . This value gives rise to the primes , , and . This sequence of primes cannot be extended beyond without knowing more digits of α. Like Mills' formula, and for the same reasons, Wright's formula cannot be used to find primes.

Prime formulas and polynomial functions[edit]

It is known that no non-constant polynomial function P(n) with integer coefficients exists that evaluates to a prime number for all integers n. The proof is as follows: Suppose such a polynomial existed. Then P(1) would evaluate to a prime p, so . But for any k, also, so cannot also be prime (as it would be divisible by p) unless it were p itself, but the only way for all k is if the polynomial function is constant.

The same reasoning shows an even stronger result: no non-constant polynomial function P(n) exists that evaluates to a prime number for almost all integers n.

Euler first noticed (in 1772) that the quadratic polynomial

P(n) = n2 + n + 41

is prime for the 40 integers n = 0, 1, 2, ..., 39. The primes for n = 0, 1, 2, ..., 39 are 41, 43, 47, 53, 61, 71, ..., 1601. The differences between the terms are 2, 4, 6, 8, 10... For n = 40, it produces a square number, 1681, which is equal to 41×41, the smallest composite number for this formula for n ≥ 0. If 41 divides n, it divides P(n) too. Furthermore, since P(n) can be written as n(n + 1) + 41, if 41 divides n + 1 instead, it also divides P(n). The phenomenon is related to the Ulam spiral, which is also implicitly quadratic, and the class number; this polynomial is related to the Heegner number , and there are analogous polynomials for (the lucky numbers of Euler), corresponding to other Heegner numbers.

Given a positive integer S, there may be infinitely many c such that the expression n2 + n + c is always coprime to S. c may be negative, in which case there is a delay before primes are produced.

It is known, based on Dirichlet's theorem on arithmetic progressions, that linear polynomial functions produce infinitely many primes as long as a and b are relatively prime (though no such function will assume prime values for all values of n). Moreover, the Green–Tao theorem says that for any k there exists a pair of a and b with the property that is prime for any n from 0 through k − 1. However, the best known result of such type is for k = 26:

43142746595714191 + 5283234035979900n is prime for all n from 0 through 25.[7]

It is not even known whether there exists a univariate polynomial of degree at least 2 that assumes an infinite number of values that are prime; see Bunyakovsky conjecture.

A possible formula using a recurrence relation[edit]

Another prime generator is defined by the recurrence relation

where gcd(x, y) denotes the greatest common divisor of x and y. The sequence of differences an + 1an starts with 1, 1, 1, 5, 3, 1, 1, 1, 1, 11, 3, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 23, 3, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 47, 3, 1, 5, 3, ... (sequence A132199 in the OEIS). Rowland (2008) proved that this sequence contains only ones and prime numbers. However, it does not contain all the prime numbers, since the terms are always odd and so never equal to 2. Nevertheless in the same paper it was conjectured to contain all odd primes, even though it is rather inefficient (587 is the smallest odd prime not appearing in the first 10000 terms that are different from 1).[8]

Note that there is a trivial program that enumerates all and only the prime numbers, as well as more efficient ones, and so such recurrence relations are more a matter of curiosity than of any practical use.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mackinnon, Nick (June 1987), "Prime Number Formulae", The Mathematical Gazette, 71 (456): 113, doi:10.2307/3616496 .
  2. ^ Jones, James P.; Sato, Daihachiro; Wada, Hideo; Wiens, Douglas (1976), "Diophantine representation of the set of prime numbers", American Mathematical Monthly, Mathematical Association of America, 83 (6): 449–464, doi:10.2307/2318339, JSTOR 2318339 .
  3. ^ Matiyasevich, Yuri V. (1999), "Formulas for Prime Numbers", in Tabachnikov, Serge, Kvant Selecta: Algebra and Analysis, II, American Mathematical Society, pp. 13–24, ISBN 978-0-8218-1915-9 .
  4. ^ Jones, James P. (1982), "Universal diophantine equation", Journal of Symbolic Logic, 47 (3): 549–571, doi:10.2307/2273588 .
  5. ^ Mills, W. H. (1947), "A prime-representing function" (PDF), Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, 53 (6): 604, doi:10.1090/S0002-9904-1947-08849-2 .
  6. ^ E. M. Wright (1951). "A prime-representing function". American Mathematical Monthly. 58 (9): 616–618. doi:10.2307/2306356. JSTOR 2306356. 
  7. ^ Perichon, Benoãt (2010), A World Record AP26 (Arithmetic Progression of 26 primes) (PDF) , The AP26 is listed in "Jens Kruse Andersen's Primes in Arithmetic Progression Records page", retrieved 2014-06-25.
  8. ^ Rowland, Eric S. (2008), "A Natural Prime-Generating Recurrence", Journal of Integer Sequences, 11: 08.2.8, arXiv:0710.3217Freely accessible, Bibcode:2008JIntS..11...28R .

Additional reading[edit]

  • Regimbal, Stephen (1975), "An explicit Formula for the k-th prime number", Mathematics Magazine, Mathematical Association of America, 48 (4): 230–232, doi:10.2307/2690354, JSTOR 2690354 .
  • A Venugopalan. Formula for primes, twinprimes, number of primes and number of twinprimes. Proceedings of the Indian Academy of Sciences—Mathematical Sciences, Vol. 92, No 1, September 1983, pp. 49–52. Page 49, 50, 51, 52, errata.

External links[edit]