Posted by Jason Polak on 09. May 2018 · Write a comment · Categories: number-theory · Tags: , ,

Fermat’s little theorem states that for a prime number $p$, any $a\in \Z/p^\times$ satisfies $a^{p-1} = 1$. If $p$ is not prime, this may not necessarily be true. For example:
$$2^{402} = 376 \in \Z/403^\times.$$
Therefore, we can conclude that 403 is not a prime number. In fact, $403 = 13\cdot 31$ Fermat’s little theorem can be used as a test for compositeness this way: if you can find a number $a$ relatively prime to $p$ such that $a^{p-1} \not\equiv 1\pmod{p}$, then $p$ is actually composite.

If there exists an $a\in\{1,\dots,p-1\}$ with $a^{p-1}\not\equiv 1\pmod{p}$, then $a$ is called a Fermat witness to the compositeness of $p$. That is, it proves that $p$ is composite. Notice that we do not require $a$ to be relatively prime to $p$ in this definition of a Fermat witness: if any number $a\lt p$ exists with $a^{p-1}\not\equiv 1\pmod{p}$, then $p$ cannot be prime, because if it were, $a$ would actually be relatively prime to $p$ and this would contradict Fermat’s little theorem.

Fermat’s little theorem is a pretty good test for compositeness: if $p$ is some odd composite integer with at least one relatively prime Fermat witness, then at least half the numbers in the range $2,3,\dots,p-2$ will also be witnesses. Note: we are using this range because $p-1$ and $1$ aren’t witnesses. Therefore, you can use Fermat’s little theorem as a randomized prime-testing algorithm: randomly select elements $a$ from $\{2,\dots,p-2\}$ and check if they satisfy $a^{p-1} = 1\pmod{p}$. Therefore, if you have some large number $N$ that is composite and has at least one witness, a randomised Fermat’s little theorem algorithm randomly testing $K$ different bases in $\{2,\dots,N-1\}$ will have probability of less than $1/2^K$ at failing to detect that $N$ is composite.
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Posted by Jason Polak on 26. November 2017 · Write a comment · Categories: number-theory · Tags: ,

Since the days of antiquity, we’ve always been looking for ways to determine whether a natural number is prime. Trial division up to the square root of a number quickly becomes tedious, thought it is worth noting that even on my fairly old laptop a slightly optimised trial-division algorithm will list all the primes under 10^7 in just under seven seconds.

Another method that sometimes works is Fermat’s little theorem:

Theorem. If $n$ is a prime number then for every $a$,
$$a^n\equiv_n a.$$

Here, I’m using the notation to mean $a^n – n$ is divisible by $n$. Let’s do some examples: 4^11 – 4 = 4194300, which is divisible by 11 (you can see this directly by using the alternating sum digit test: 4 – 1 + 9 – 4 + 3 = 11). On the other hand, $2^{69} – 2 = 590295810358705651710 \equiv_{69} 6$. Of course, from the nature of the theorem, if $a^n\equiv_n a$ is not true then $n$ is composite, so it can tell you for sure if a number is composite but not if a number is prime.
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