Really, “lots” doesn’t even cover it, because there are an infinite number of prime numbers. Like most interesting facts in mathematics, there are many ways of proving this. The most familiar, and probably oldest, appears in Euclid’s Elements.

It’s a very simple proof by contradiction. Start by assuming that there are only $ N $ primes, $ p_1, \ldots, p_N $. If you multiply them all together and add one, you get

None of the $ p_j $s divide $ m $, so either $ m $ itself is prime or it has a prime factor $ q \ne p_i $ for all $ i $. Either way, there must be a prime that wasn’t in our original set, contradicting the assumption that there are only a finite number of primes.

Euclid’s proof may be a classic, but it’s not my favorite. My favorite is more complicated. Complexity is not usually a virtue, but the roundabout nature of this proof is, in a word, neat. It depends on two very important facts, neither of which I’ll prove because I’m lazy.

The first fact is that any positive integer $ m $1 has a unique “prime factorization”, which means that

where the $ p_i $s are distinct primes and the $ k_i$s are positive integers2. If you allow the $ k_i $s to be zero, the factorization is no longer unique. On the other hand, $ n $ itself can be zero, in which case $ m = 1 $, because the product of an empty list of things is $ 1 $.3

The second fact is that the harmonic series diverges. The harmonic series is the sum

As you sum together more and more terms in the series, the total keeps growing without bound. If you pick some number $ x $, there’s a number $ L $ such that if I sum together $ L $ or more terms, the result will be greater than $ x $. It doesn’t matter what value you pick for $ x $: eventually the total will be larger. For even a relatively small $ x $, However, you’ll need to sum a lot of terms. If $ x = 10 $, you’ll need to sum more than $12\,000$ of them!4

Now, rewrite the denominator for each term in the harmonic series as its prime factorization, like so:

Already, it seems like I can pull out powers of $ 1/2 $, turning the infinite series into a product of two infinite series:

If you aren’t convinced, try expanding out only the explicitly listed terms and see that everything up to $ 1/6 $ is included, along with some other terms.

Now, I’m going to assume, again, that there are only $ N $ primes5, $ p_1, \ldots, p_N $. For convenience, I’ll assume that they’re indexed in order of their size, so $ p_1 = 2 $, $ p_2 = 3 $, and so on. By repeatedly factoring out powers of $ 1/p_j $ for each of the primes $ p_j $, I can write the harmonic series a product of $ N $ infinite series.

This looks much prettier with product and sum notation, using big capital $\Pi$s and $\Sigma$s:6

Then using the basic fact that $ 1/p_j^k = (1/p_j)^k $, the sums are revealed to be geometric series. As long as $ -1 < x < 1 $,

Now the harmonic series is just a simple, finite product!7

Of course, if the harmonic series is a product of a finite number of finite terms, then it must be finite. Since we know the harmonic series diverges, we have another contradiction, again showing that the assumption that there are a finite number of primes is false. QED, as we say in the business.

  1. This $ m $ is completely independent from the $ m $ used above. One of the hardest parts about programming is coming up with good names for functions and variables; in math this is even harder, since long-standing tradition means sticking to names that are a single letter! In the face of such scarcity, mathematicians recycle aggressively.

  2. This fact is so important that some people call it the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic!

  3. This is a general property of monoids, where using a monoid operation to fold together an empty list of elements always gives the identity element.

  4. I found the answer using a trick I may talk about in a future post, but you can also find the answer by brute force. For instance, it’s a one-liner in Haskell:

    length . takeWhile (<= 10) . scanl (+) 0 . map (1 /) $ [1..]

    If you copy and paste that into GHCi, you should get 12367 as the result. This will run instantaneously, but be careful, because as $ x $ gets larger, it’ll get very slow very fast.

  5. One interesting consequence of having a finite number of primes is that when you factor a number into primes, you can include all the primes, some raised to the zeroth power, and still have a unique way of writing the factorization!

  6. This notation is very similar to a for loop. In the curly brace language of your choice,

    is equivalent to

    double result = 0.0;
    for (int k = 1; k <= n; ++k) { 
      result += f(k);
    return result;

    In addition to using the same damn one-letter variable names over and over agin, no matter how confusing it is, mathematicians also have an annoying habit of indexing from one.

  7. This is called the “Euler product”, after Leonhard Euler, who discovered it. I’m pretty sure the second proof in this post is also due to Euler.