Maths in a minute: Perfect numbers

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A perfect number is a natural number whose divisors add up to the number itself. The number 6 is a perfect example: the divisors of 6 are 1, 2 and 3 (we exclude 6 itself, that is, we only consider proper divisors) and

1+2+3 = 6.


If a non-perfect number were an animal, it might look something like this.

Hooray! People have known about perfect numbers for millennia and have always been fascinated by them. Saint Augustine (354–430) thought that the perfection of the number 6 is the reason why god chose to create the world in 6 days, taking a rest on the 7th. The Greek Nicomachus of Gerasa (60-120) thought that perfect numbers produce virtue, just measure, propriety and beauty. Numbers that are not perfect, for example numbers whose proper divisors add up to more than the number itself, Nichomachus found very disturbing. He accused them of producing excess, superfluity, exaggerations and abuse, and of being like animals with "ten mouths, or nine lips, and provided with three lines of teeth; or with a hundred arms, or having too many fingers on one of its hands."

If you play around with numbers for a while you will see why people have always been so fond of perfect numbers: they are very rare. The next one after 6 is 28, then it's 496, and for the fourth perfect number we have to go all the way up to 8128. Throughout antiquity, and until well into the middle ages, those four were the only perfect numbers that were known. Today we still only know of 51 of them, even though there are fast computers to help us find them. The largest so far, discovered in December 2018, has over 49 million digits.

Will we ever find another one? We can't be sure — mathematicians believe that there are infinitely many perfect numbers, so the supply will never run out, but nobody has been able to prove this. It's one of the great mysteries of mathematics. You can find out more in Number mysteries.

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