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In the last few weeks, the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS) announced the discovery of two new Mersenne primes, both over ten million digits in length, including one discovered by the computing team right here at UCLA (see this page for more information). [I was not involved in this computing effort.] As for the question “Why do we want to find such big primes anyway?”, see this page, though this is not the focus of my post today.
The GIMPS approach to finding Mersenne primes relies of course on modern computing power, parallelisation, and efficient programming, but the number-theoretic heart of it – aside from some basic optimisation tricks such as fast multiplication and preliminary sieving to eliminate some obviously non-prime Mersenne number candidates – is the Lucas-Lehmer primality test for Mersenne numbers, which is much faster for this special type of number than any known general-purpose (deterministic) primality test (such as, say, the AKS test). This test is easy enough to describe, and I will do so later in this post, and also has some short elementary proofs of correctness; but the proofs are sometimes presented in a way that involves pulling a lot of rabbits out of hats, giving the argument a magical feel rather than a natural one. In this post, I will try to explain the basic ideas that make the primality test work, seeking a proof which is perhaps less elementary and a little longer than some of the proofs in the literature, but is perhaps a bit better motivated.