Methods used by computers programmed to run a 350-year-old equation may also offer answers to Bitcoin’s out-sized demand for electricity. The Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search found and confirmed the biggest known prime number, a 23-million-digit-long figure discovered with the math of 16th century French monk Marin Mersenne, according to a statement earlier this month. That effort, along with other collaborative computing methods, are advancing the science of cryptography, which is essential to creating and tracking Bitcoins.
“These ideas could be seen as intellectually connected,” said Seth Schoen, a senior technologist at San Francisco’s Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is offering a $150,000 bounty to the first person or group to discover a 100-million digit prime number. “Cryptocurrency mining could be seen as an indirect descendant of distributed computing projects.” The process of searching for prime numbers – which are at the foundation of cryptography – shows how solving tedious equations can lead to scientific breakthroughs that have practical applications.
The meteoric rise of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is stirring debate at the highest levels of monetary policy making. Adherents are betting that trust in its blockchain technology for tracking transactions will eventually revolutionize how value is stored and transmitted. Detractors point to the massive energy consumed by the computers that are used to solve the mundane mathematical equations that keep the system going.