# Sierpinski Numbers I was trying (unsuccessfully) to track down a reference on the chaos game for Edmund Harriss and ran across an unsolved problem in math that I’d never heard of before -> the Sierpinski Numbers.

Turns out that Sierpinski proved in 1960 that there are infinitely many odd positive integers $k$ for which the number: $k * 2^n + 1$

is not prime for any positive integer $n$.

It turns out that the smallest known Sierpinski number is 78,557, though there are 4 smaller numbers for which no primes have been found, yet. Those numbers are 21181, 22699, 24737, 55459, and 67607.

There’s lots of info on the Sierpinski numbers on Wikipedia:

Wikipedia’s page on the Sierpinski numbers

Tonight I wanted to explain a bit about the Sierpinski numbers to the boys as a way to review modular arithmetic. I also thought it would be interesting to see how they thought you could attack a problem like this one – especially in the 1960s!

So, here’s how we got started – a bit of Sierpinski review and then an introduction to the theorem mentioned above. It isn’t the easiest thing for kids to understand, so I wanted to be extra sure they understood all of the parts:

Next we talked a bit about modular arithmetic and why it wasn’t too hard to see, for example, that lots of the number we were looking at were divisible by 3. The math work here is a great introductory modular arithmetic exercise for kids.

Next we went to Mathematica to explore the modular arithmetic a bit more. Once we had the idea with 3, it was a little easier to see why there were repeating patterns with the remainders mod 5. The fun part was that the boys were able to see that one out of every 4 numbers would be divisible by 5.

Finally, we looked at the problem a slightly different way and tried to see if it was easy or hard to see if 3 (or 5 or 7 or 9) was a Sierpinski number. Would we ever see primes?

This project was really fun – it is always neat to stumble on an unsolved problem that is accessible to kids. Also, I’d really love to know how Sierpinski’s proof went – sort of amazing that it took 8 years after the proof that there were infinitely many numbers with this property to find the first one!

# A nice problem about primes for kids from James Tanton Saw a really cool tweet from James Tanton today:

Tonight I sat down with the boys to make sure they understood the problem. They noticed that half the numbers would have no powers of two – good start! After that observation they started down the path to solving the problem really quickly. In fact, my younger son thought that we might have a geometric series.

Since we covered a few ideas pretty quickly in the last video, so I stared this part of the project by asking them to give me a more detailed explanation for how they got the 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, . . . pattern in the last video. It turned out to be a little harder for them to give precise arguments, but they did manage to hit the main points which was nice.

At the end of this video my older son was able to write down the series that we needed to add up to solve the problem.

Now that we had the series, we had to figure out how to add it up. My guess was that they’d never seen a series like this, but my older son had a really cool idea almost immediately – rewrite the series!

The boys were able to sum the series in this new form – so yay!

At the end of of the last video my younger son said that he was surprised that the “expected value” wasn’t zero since zero was the most likely value. In this part of the video we talked a bit more about what “expected value” meant.

Once we had that I asked what I meant to be a quick question -> is the expected number of 3’s higher or lower. It turned out to be a longer conversation than I expected, though, because my older son was actually able to write down the answer!

Definitely a fun problem. I think it is fun for kids to see how to add up a series like the one in this project. I also think it is fun for kids to explore some of the basic ideas about primes that pop up in this problem.

As an aside, one other place where I’ve seen the series that came up here is in this post from Patrick Honner:

Proof Without Words: Two Dimensional Geometric Series

His “proof without words” for the sum is this picture – can you see how it works? 