Solution: Intel Pentium P5 floating point unit error (1994): RMO problem !!!

Finally, the much awaited solution is here:

(I re-state the problem from a previous blog, almost a month old):

Two number theorists bored in a chemistry lab, played a game with a large flask containing 2 litres of a colourful chemical solution and an ultra-accurate pipette. The game was that they would take turns to recall a prime number p such that (p+2) is also a prime number. Then, the first number theorist would pipette out 1/p litres of chemical and the second \frac{1}{p+2} litres. How many times do they have to play this game to empty the flask completely?


It is easy to play this game initially even for ordinary people : one could guess p to be 3 because 5 is a prime number, then 5 and 7, 11 and 13, 17 and 19, 29 and 31, and so on. These are called twin primes. Number theorists need to be there to recall large twin primes. The emptied amount of liquid in litres is given by the twin prime harmonic series H_{P}^{TP}:

H_{P}^{TP} = (\frac{1}{3} + \frac{1}{5}) + (\frac{1}{5} + \frac{1}{7}) + (\frac{1}{11} + \frac{1}{13}) + (\frac{1}{17}+\frac{1}{19}) + \ldots

This series is known to converge to 1.902160583104…which is known as Brun’s constant, named after Viggo Brun, who proved it in 1919. It is a curious result because it is not known if infinitely many twin primes exist, refer for example,

even though it is known that infinitely many primes exist (a result proved by Euclid in 300 BC!) and the harmonic series diverges (a result proved by Euler in the eighteenth century). Had the series H_{P}^{TP} diverged, then one could say that infinite twin primes exist. But, as the series converges (must converge with finitely many twin primes or may converge even with infinitely many twin primes), the question of infinitude of twin primes is still an open one. (there is a recent famous result of Prof. Yitang Zhang also regarding this). Anyway, the point is that the two number theorists would not be able to empty 2 litres even if they play the game for infinitely long period. So, they are not bored and can keep themselves busy in the chemistry lab forever.

Another curious fact about Brun’s constant is that its computation in a computer revealed a floating point division arithmetic error in Intel’s Pentium P5 Floating Point Unit in 1994. This bug was discovered by Thomas Nicely while evaluating the reciprocals of twin primes 824633702441 and 824633702443. Consequently, Intel incurred USD 475 million to fix this bug. For a while in 1995, number theory and Brun’s constant took the centre stage in popular media.

For curious minds, there also exist prime triplets, prime quadruples etc. If four number theorists play the game, they will not be able to empty even 1 litre because the harmonic series of prime quadruples is estimated to be around 0.8705883800.


Popular Problems and Puzzles in Mathematics, Asok Kumar Mallik, IISc Press, Foundation Books:

Amazon India link:

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