Friday, December 18, 2009

First usage report

This morning I asked someone on Facebook who has hundreds of friends to test Are you prime? (up until that time, I've only tested such scenarios through simulations). It worked fine and found a few dozens prime user IDs. He met this with skepticism, however. He simply doesn't think that all of those numbers can possibly be primes. What his opinion was based upon, I dare not ask. It was obviously nothing mathematical, thus contradicting his own self-professed love for the subject.

Mathematics, of course, does not care what you think is and isn't true. Depending on the kind of person you are, I guess this can either be a good thing or a bad thing. In this case, though, it's a bad thing because he decided not to publish this result because he found it disagreeable (despite it being something that is rigorously verifiable).

I would be interested in the result of the following experiment: ask people to pick which of {4999999, 4916731} is a prime. Based on this anecdote, my guess is that most people would erroneously pick the latter, because "4999999 just doesn't look prime".

In any case, this would limit the potential growth of an application which already has a very niche appeal. As sad as this is to say, it appears that math just doesn't appeal to most people. And even when it does, half the time they already know their user ID is not a prime because it's even, and they may not be curious enough to check if any of their friends' are. Now I found out that even if they went as far as trying the app, they may still be skeptical enough of the result, severely limiting its virality by not sharing it.
There may be another explanation for his distrust of the result: perhaps it's not that the primes don't pass his own personal smell test, but that so many were found relatively easily.

If his limited exposure to prime numbers is through reading the occasional articles reporting that they just found another one after a lengthy and laborious search, then he might have the wrong impression that prime numbers are rare and hard to find.

A ridiculous suggestion, perhaps, but what other reasonably reasonable explanations are there?
Fun fact: several of my app's meager 24 users are from Italy. How it got there in the first place, I'll never know now (it happened before I implemented a more verbose logging system). None of them would publish their results, though. I wonder if language is the issue. Then again, the app uses basic English to speak the more universal language of mathematics! If absence of localization is such an issue, then why would they try it out in the first place??

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