Intrigued by my tutor Titus’ account of prime numbers in nature and, in particular, their bearing on the life-cycle of the magicicada, I find myself at eight in the evening at the Maths Society, where 15 of our most ardent mathematicians have gathered over mince pies and lemonade to discuss the magical properties of prime numbers. Led by head of maths, Michael Truss, they need no spurring on to be excited about prime – there is buzz, banter and exchange of ideas as we journey from Euclid’s proof (an early prime-wallah in 300 BC), through the concept of primes as “the atoms of maths” to all sorts of different ways of generating primes. Michael’s question “Why are prime numbers lucrative?” takes us off into the realm of public-key cryptography, which is interesting and potentially lucrative, presumably if you can frame an especially clever one and if you can crack someone else’s. By now my interest has become more anthropological than mathematical, as the level of fervent enquiry shows no sign of abating and as the ideas stretch way beyond my sadly limited mathematical horizon. We end up with pringles (figuratively) making an appearance and the concept of flat vs curved geometry. I catch Michael and Titus at the end and we return to those clever cicadas who have prospered by naturally selecting prime number years for their change from grub to cicada proper; this means that, by appearing on prime number cycles, they avoid more predators. So, whether you are a North American cicada or not, Maths is everywhere – and, I fully appreciate, the source of much interest and fun.
By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools