Technology: Quick, What Are the Prime Factors

What Are the Prime Factors of 9,412,343,607,359,262,946,971,172, 136,294,514,357,528,981,378,983,082,541,347,532,211,942,640,121,301, 590,698,634,089,611,468,911,681?

Don't bother reaching for your calculator. To turn this 100-digit monster into its indivisible primes -- as in reducing 15 to the product of 3 and 5 -- would ordinarily require the undivided attention of a supercomputer for as long as two months. But last week the record-size problem was solved after just 26 days by a group of more than 50 smaller machines scattered across the U.S., Europe and Australia.

Employing a technique called distributed processing, Arjen Lenstra, a Dutch-born computer scientist working as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, broke the task into smaller pieces and dispatched...

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