Tag Archives: conway

Hyperreal and Surreal Numbers


These are the two lesser known number systems, with confusing names.

Hyperreal numbers originated from what we now call “non-standard analysis”. The system of hyperreal numbers is a way of treating infinite and infinitesimal quantities. The term “hyper-real” was introduced by Edwin Hewitt in 1948. In non-standard analysis the concept of continuity and differentiation is defined using infinitesimals, instead of the epsilon-delta methods. In 1960, Abraham Robinson showed that infinitesimals are precise, clear, and meaningful.

Following is a relevant Numberphile video:

Surreal numbers, on the other hand, is a fully developed number system which is more powerful than our real number system. They share many properties with the real numbers, including the usual arithmetic operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division); as such, they also form an ordered field. The modern definition and construction of surreal numbers was given by John Horton Conway in  1970. The inspiration for these numbers came from the combinatorial game theory. Conway’s construction was introduced in Donald Knuth‘s 1974 book Surreal Numbers: How Two Ex-Students Turned on to Pure Mathematics and Found Total Happiness.


In his book, which takes the form of a dialogue, Knuth coined the term surreal numbers for what Conway had called simply numbers. This is the best source to learn about their construction. But the construction, though logical, is non-trivial. Conway later adopted Knuth’s term, and used surreals for analyzing games in his 1976 book On Numbers and Games.

Following is a relevant Numberphile video:

Many nice videos on similar topics can be found on PBS Infinite Series YouTube channel.


Conway’s Prime Producing Machine


Primes are not randomly arranged (since their position is predetermined) but we can’t find an equation which directly gives us nth prime number. However, we can ask for a function (which surely can’t be a polynomial) which will give only the prime numbers as output. For example, the following one is used for MRDP theorem:


But it’s useless to use this to find bigger primes because the computations are much more difficult than the primality tests.

Conway’s PRIMEGAME takes whole numbers as inputs and outputs 2^k if and only if k is prime.


Source: https://cstheory.stackexchange.com/a/14727 [Richard Guy, © 1983 Mathematical Association of America]

 PRIMEGAME is based on a Turing-complete esoteric programming language called FRACTRAN, invented by John Conway. A FRACTRAN program is an ordered list of positive fractions together with an initial positive integer input n. The program is run by updating the integer n as follows:

  1. for the first fraction f in the list for which nf is an integer, replace n by nf;
  2. repeat this rule until no fraction in the list produces an integer when multiplied by n, then halt.

PRIMEGAME is an algorithm devised to generate primes using a sequence of 14 rational numbers:

\displaystyle{\left( \frac{17}{91}, \frac{78}{85}, \frac{19}{51}, \frac{23}{38}, \frac{29}{33}, \frac{77}{29}, \frac{95}{23}, \frac{77}{19}, \frac{1}{17}, \frac{11}{13}, \frac{13}{11}, \frac{15}{2}, \frac{1}{7}, \frac{55}{1} \right)}

Starting with 2, one finds the first number in the machine that multiplied by 2 gives an integer; then for that integer we find the first number in the machine that generates another integer. Except for the initial 2, each number output have an integer for a binary logarithm is a prime number, which is to say that powers of 2 with composite exponents don’t show up.

If you have some knowledge of computability and unsolvability theory, you can try to understand the working of this Turing machine. There is a nice exposition on OeisWiki  to begin with.


“Hilbert’s 10th Problem” by Martin Davis and Reuben Hersh [© 1973 Scientific American, doi: 10.1038/scientificamerican1173-84] Illustrating the basic idea of machines from unsoilvability theory.

Following is an online program by Prof. Andrew Granville illustrating the working of PRIMEGAME:

Motivation for this post came from Andrew Granville’s Math Mornings at Yale.