Searching for Fermat primes

Fermat numbers have the form

F_n = 2^{2^n} + 1

Fermat numbers are prime if n = 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4. Nobody has confirmed that any other Fermat numbers are prime. Maybe there are only five Fermat primes and we’ve found all of them. But there might be infinitely many Fermat primes. Nobody knows.

There’s a specialized test for checking whether a Fermat number is prime, Pépin’s test. It says that for n ≥ 1, the Fermat number Fn is prime if and only if

3^{(F_n - 1)/2} \equiv -1 \pmod {F_n}

We can verify fairly quickly that F1 through F4 are prime and that F5 through F14 are not with the following Python code.

    def pepin(n):
        x = 2**(2**n - 1)
        y = 2*x
        return y == pow(3, x, y+1)

    for i in range(1, 15):

After that the algorithm gets noticeably slower.

We have an efficient algorithm for testing whether Fermat numbers are prime, efficient relative to the size of numbers involved. But the size of the Fermat numbers is growing exponentially. The number of digits in Fn is

1 + \lfloor 2^n \log_{10} 2 \rfloor \approx 0.3 \times 2^n

So F14 has 4,933 digits, for example.

The Fermat numbers for n = 5 to 32 are known to be composite. Nobody knows whether F33 is prime. In principle you could find out by using Pépin’s test, but the number you’d need to test has 2,585,827,973 digits, and that will take a while. The problem is not so much that the exponent is so big but that the modulus is also very big.

The next post presents an analogous test for whether a Mersenne number is prime.

One thought on “Searching for Fermat primes

  1. The way in which Gauss discovered that F5 is composite is wonderful- and a great lesson on how human calculators are not necessarily obsolete in the electronic age, and perhaps can be good for some significant “insight”. If no one can find it, I’ll copy the passage from Hardy and Wright.

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