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Prime Numbers in Probability and Statistics

Statistics Definitions > Prime Numbers in Probability and Statistics

What is a Prime Number?

Prime numbers are whole numbers (numbers that aren’t fractions) greater than 1 that are divisible only by itself and one. For example, 13 is a prime number because it cannot be divided by anything but 13 and 1.

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What are primes used for in probability and statistics?

Prime numbers aren’t generally used in statistics (other than those number appearing in data), but statistics and probabilities are used to work with prime numbers in number theory. For example, you might want to find the probability of choosing a prime number from a series of numbers. The odds depend on what interval you choose:

  • The probability of finding a prime in the set {0,1,2} is .333, because one out of the three numbers is a prime (1/3 = .333).
  • The probability for the set of numbers from 1 to 100 is .25, because 25/100 numbers in that set are primes (which are 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, 97).

Prime numbers look random, but there’s some research using statistical mechanics that suggests a chaos pattern (statistical mechanics is a branch of mathematical physics that studies the behavior of systems). “It is evident that the primes are randomly distributed but, unfortunately, we don’t know what ‘random’ means” (Vaughan, 1990).

Why do we even care about prime numbers in real life or the probability of finding them? You may not realize it, but prime numbers play an important role in many areas of science, including the math behind internet shopping. Prime numbers are the nuts and bolts behind the cryptography that keeps your personal information secure when you shop online.


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