World Federation of Science Journalists

Prime numbers connect galaxies to digital security

June 1, 2010

Take one of the most persistent mathematical mysteries in the world, one that underlies secrecy in everything from national spy agencies to shopping on the Internet, and figure out how to make sense of it visually for television.

That was the challenge facing Shin-ya Ide and Hideki Uematsu of the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) when they were producing The Cosmic Code Breakers: the secrets of prime numbers.

Using advanced computer-generated imagery to hold viewers’ attention, they came first in Japan’s countrywide competition for science journalism. Their TV documentary probed the “Riemann Hypothesis,” an unsolved mystery in the mathematics of prime numbers.

Winners of the JASTJ prizes (front row) and members of the judging
committee, in Tokyo
Their production came first in a list of prizes awarded May 18 in Tokyo by the Japanese Association of Science and Technology Journalists (JASTJ). The awards are an annual event for articles or programs “of social significance” in newspapers, magazines, books, TV programs and websites.

There is indeed “social significance” to prime numbers, a series that begins 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37 … and continues indefinitely.

As NHK explained in advance publicity for the program, “The secrets of our world, everything from personal data to classified military intelligence is kept secure by computer programs using prime numbers. If mathematicians discover the rule by which prime numbers are created, information security around the world could fall apart ….”

Because nobody yet knows how to predict definitely where they will occur – Bernhard Riemann came close in the late 19th century – they can be used to encrypt electronic data.

“This series of numbers, appearing at random, irregular intervals … cannot be divided by anything except themselves, and 1 … in a sense they are the atoms of mathematics,” NHK says.

Oh, and along the way someone discovered that the interval between one prime number and the next increases as the number becomes larger, and there’s “a relation between the way this interval grew and the shape of spiral galaxies.” That’s one of the more understandable mysteries the NHK show attempts to explain with “sophisticated computer-generated graphics.”

To this day, computers are churning out primes (they have reached the 1.5 trillion mark) as part of the effort to prove whether there is a pattern that can or cannot be decoded. As NHK puts it, “in the belief that the prime number sequence will never be decoded, a cryptographic algorithm was developed … which now supports the security of digital information across the globe.”

But if the code is discovered, “The U.S. National Security Agency suggests that it could compromise national security around the globe, and has anticipated such an event by mandating that all papers concerning the Riemann hypothesis [which deals with the code] must be subject to NSA review prior to publication.”

Social significance indeed. And there was plenty of it among the work of the other prize winners.

About 80 people, including the selection committee’s Dr. Hideki Shirakawa, co-winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, attended the Tokyo ceremony.

Winners included Yuri Aono of Mainichi Daily News for Can We Control Influenza, a book about the 2009 influenza pandemic, setting the story in the context of previous flu outbreaks, and focusing on the battle between the 2009 virus and scientists armed with genetic analysis and vaccines. An influenza website by Dr. Tatsuhito Tono-oka, designed for access by ordinary people as well as scientists and journalists, was similarly recognized.

Former science journalist Yuriko Matsumura won recognition for a book analyzing a poem on a scientific theme, and Kentaro Sato, a former researcher for a pharmaceutical company, took honors for a book on challenges facing the production of new drugs in Japan after many patents expire this year. The Sato book also looked at the shortage of expertise in government, which lengthens the certification process for new drugs.

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