Two mathematicians have uncovered a simple, previously unnoticed property of prime numbers — those numbers that are divisible only by 1 and themselves. Prime numbers, it seems, have decided preferences about the final digits of the primes that immediately follow them.
Among the first billion prime numbers, for instance, a prime ending in 9 is almost 65 percent more likely to be followed by a prime ending in 1 than another prime ending in 9. In a paper posted online, Kannan Soundararajan and Robert Lemke Oliver of Stanford University present both numerical and theoretical evidence that prime numbers repel other would-be primes that end in the same digit, and have varied predilections for being followed by primes ending in the other possible final digits.
“We’ve been studying primes for a long time, and no one spotted this before,” said Andrew Granville, a number theorist at the University of Montreal and University College London. “It’s crazy.”
The discovery is the exact opposite of what most mathematicians would have predicted, said Ken Ono, a number theorist at Emory University in Atlanta. When he first heard the news, he said, “I was floored. I thought, ‘For sure, your program’s not working.’”
This conspiracy among prime numbers seems, at first glance, to violate a longstanding assumption in number theory: that prime numbers behave much like random numbers. Most mathematicians would have assumed, Granville and Ono agreed, that a prime should have an equal chance of being followed by a prime ending in 1, 3, 7 or 9 (the four possible endings for all prime numbers except 2 and 5).
“I can’t believe anyone in the world would have guessed this,” Granville said. Even after having seen Lemke Oliver and Soundararajan’s analysis of their phenomenon, he said, “it still seems like a strange thing.”
Yet the pair’s work doesn’t upend the notion that primes behave randomly so much as point to how subtle their particular mix of randomness and order is. “Can we redefine what ‘random’ means in this context so that once again, [this phenomenon] looks like it might be random?” Soundararajan said. “That’s what we think we’ve done.”
Soundararajan was drawn to study consecutive primes after hearing a lecture at Stanford by the mathematician Tadashi Tokieda, of the University of Cambridge, in which he mentioned a counterintuitive property of coin-tossing: If Alice tosses a coin until she sees a head followed by a tail, and Bob tosses a coin until he sees two heads in a row, then on average, Alice will require four tosses while Bob will require six tosses (try this at home!), even though head-tail and head-head have an equal chance of appearing after two coin tosses.
Soundararajan wondered if similarly strange phenomena appear in other contexts. Since he has studied the primes for decades, he turned to them — and found something even stranger than he had bargained for. Looking at prime numbers written in base 3 — in which roughly half the primes end in 1 and half end in 2 — he found that among primes smaller than 1,000, a prime ending in 1 is more than twice as likely to be followed by a prime ending in 2 than by another prime ending in 1. Likewise, a prime ending in 2 prefers to be followed a prime ending in 1.
Soundararajan showed his findings to postdoctoral researcher Lemke Oliver, who was shocked. He immediately wrote a program that searched much farther out along the number line — through the first 400 billion primes. Lemke Oliver again found that primes seem to avoid being followed by another prime with the same final digit. The primes “really hate to repeat themselves,” Lemke Oliver said.
Lemke Oliver and Soundararajan discovered that this sort of bias in the final digits of consecutive primes holds not just in base 3, but also in base 10 and several other bases; they conjecture that it’s true in every base. The biases that they found appear to even out, little by little, as you go farther along the number line — but they do so at a snail’s pace. “It’s the rate at which they even out which is surprising to me,” said James Maynard, a number theorist at the University of Oxford. When Soundararajan first told Maynard what the pair had discovered, “I only half believed him,” Maynard said. “As soon as I went back to my office, I ran a numerical experiment to check this myself.”
Lemke Oliver and Soundararajan’s first guess for why this bias occurs was a simple one: Maybe a prime ending in 3, say, is more likely to be followed by a prime ending in 7, 9 or 1 merely because it encounters numbers with those endings before it reaches another number ending in 3. For example, 43 is followed by 47, 49 and 51 before it hits 53, and one of those numbers, 47, is prime.
But the pair of mathematicians soon realized that this potential explanation couldn’t account for the magnitude of the biases they found. Nor could it explain why, as the pair found, primes ending in 3 seem to like being followed by primes ending in 9 more than 1 or 7. To explain these and other preferences, Lemke Oliver and Soundararajan had to delve into the deepest model mathematicians have for random behavior in the primes.