Two applications of finite fields to computational number theory

In this post I’d like to discuss how finite fields (and more generally finite rings) can be used to study two fundamental computational problems in number theory: computing square roots modulo a prime and proving primality for Mersenne numbers.  The corresponding algorithms (Cipolla’s algorithm and the Lucas-Lehmer test) are often omitted from undergraduate-level number theory courses because they appear, at first glance, to be relatively sophisticated.  This is a shame because these algorithms are really marvelous — not to mention useful — and I think they’re more accessible than most people realize. I’ll attempt to describe these two algorithms assuming only a standard first-semester course in elementary number theory and familiarity with complex numbers, without assuming any background in abstract algebra.  These algorithms could also be used in a first-semester abstract algebra course to help motivate the practical utility of concepts like rings and fields.

Anecdotal Prelude

In researching this blog post on Wikipedia, I learned a couple of interesting historical tidbits that I’d like to share before getting on with the math.

elucasThe French mathematician Edouard Lucas (of Lucas sequence fame) showed in 1876 that the 39-digit Mersenne number 2^{127}-1 is prime.  This stood for 75 years as the largest known prime.  Lucas also invented (or at least popularized) the Tower of Hanoi puzzle and published the first description of the Dots and Boxes game.  He died in quite an unusual way: apparently a waiter at a banquet dropped what he was carrying and a piece of broken plate cut Lucas on the cheek. Lucas developed a severe skin inflammation and died a few days later at age 47.

Derrick Henry Lehmer was a long-time professor of mathematics at U.C. Berkeley.  In 1950, Lehmer was one DHLehmerof 31 University of California faculty members fired for refusing to sign a loyalty oath during the McCarthy era.  In 1952, the California Supreme Court declared the oath unconstitutional, and Lehmer returned to Berkeley shortly thereafter.  Lehmer also built a number of fascinating mechanical sieve machines designed to factor large numbers. Continue reading

Primitive roots, discrete logarithms, and p-adic numbers

hellmanThis morning I attended Martin Hellman’s stimulating keynote address at the 2013 Georgia Tech Cyber Security Summit. Martin Hellman is the co-inventor, with Whitfield Diffie, of the Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange Protocol, which began the (public) public-key cryptography revolution.  Among the interesting things I learned during Martin Hellman’s talk are:

1. Hellman feels that Ralph Merkle deserves equal credit for inventing public-key cryptography and refers to his own invention as the Diffie-Hellman-Merkle key exchange protocol.  (Merkle was the director of the Georgia Tech Information Security Center from 2003-2006.)

2. Hellman came up with the famous “double padlock” thought experiment after the invention of the Diffie-Hellman-Merkle key exchange protocol, as a way to explain it to others.  The mathematics came first.  (I had always wondered about this.)

gill3. Most interestingly, Hellman said that he got the idea to use modular exponentiation/discrete logarithms as a “one-way function” from the engineer and mathematician John Gill (who I never heard of before this morning).  John Gill’s other suggestion was to use multiplication/factoring, which forms the basis of RSA!  It’s all the more amazing that I’ve never heard of John Gill because he earned his bachelor’s degree in Applied Mathematics from Georgia Tech (where I now teach) and his Ph.D. in Mathematics from U.C. Berkeley (where I got my Ph.D.)!  Hellman also recounted a conversation in which Gill (who is African-American) mentioned having encountered very little racial intolerance during his undergraduate studies in the 1960’s — apparently Georgia Tech was (relatively speaking) an oasis of tolerance among southern universities during that time.

Now on to the mathematical part of this post, which is an unusual proof of the existence of primitive roots modulo primes which I came up with recently while preparing a lecture for my course on Number Theory and Cryptography.  The proof is much less elementary than every other proof I’ve seen, but I would argue that it nevertheless has some merit.   Continue reading