Defending Prime Numbers on the Radio

By Deane Barker on December 11, 2003

I don’t really like radio DJs. I never have. But this morning, after I dropped my son off at school, I heard something on the local FM station, to which I just had to respond.

The morning crew was going over news briefs, and the last news item of the bunch is always something oddball that they then make some wisecracks about. Today, they started making fun of the guy who just found the world’s largest prime number. They were going on about “What’s the point?” and how it was a “waste of time” because the number is 6 million digits long and would take 1,600 pages to write out, etc.

Well, far be it from me to jump on a soapbox, but this called for action. I pulled the minivan over, grabbed the phone book, and dialed the radio station. Ten seconds later, I was on the air.

You know how you guys were just poking fun at the prime number guy? Well, did you know that large prime numbers are used in cryptography? And that the only reason you can go to Amazon and buy something without your credit card number being stolen is because some guy sat around in his basement and found these big prime numbers?”

Dead silence, then the female DJ: “I’m sorry, but you just put us to sleep.”

The male DJ: “Did you know that the human head weighs eight pounds?”

“No,” I said.

“Did you know which way a gun barrel is rifled?”

“No,” I said again. Long silence. “Are we still talking about prime numbers?” I asked, confused.

Alas, it was too late — they had hung up on me and the radio was playing some promo for something or other. Just another example of computer geeks being crushed by Big Media.



  1. Moral: never try to use reason and logic when talking with people whose job is to entertain the masses. They’re used to dealing with the lowest common denominators in our society (there’s some math terminology for you!) on a daily basis. To jump in and hurl intellectual poo at them only confuses them and ultimately makes them turn on you.

    Been there; I know.

  2. Here in australia the largest fm national youth radio station station is a public one called triple J. It tends to play a broad cross section of music including what would be described as alternative or college radio. Bands like silverchair were springboarded? to success from their airplay on this station. Anyway one of the breakfast dj’s Adam Spencer is a maths graduate who is always speaking numbers and prime numbers. On thursday morning they have dr karl who is a science guru. worth a listen if you want to check them out at

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