Can you prove that there are arbitrarily many primes in arbitrarily big intervals?

The problem statement asks you to prove that for *any* positive integer number \(k\) you can think of,
there will be a certain lower bound \(n_0\) (that depends on \(k\)) such that for *any* integer \(n \geq n_0\),
*there is* an interval of length \(n\) that contains *exactly* \(k\) primes.
(When we talk about the length of the interval, we are talking about how many integers it contains.)

If the statement confused you a bit, that is ok. Let me rephrase it.

You and I will play a game. I will think of a positive integer \(k\). Now, your job is to come up with another positive integer \(n_0\) such that, if I pick a number \(n\) greater than \(n_0\), you can always find an interval of size \(n\) that contains \(k\) primes.

For example, if I thought of \(k = 5\), you *could not* pick \(n_0 = 4\).
Why not?
Because if I pick \(n = 4\), there is *no* interval of length \(4\) that contains \(5\) prime numbers...
Especially because an interval of length \(4\) contains only \(4\) integers!

This problem was posed to me by my mathematician cousin and I confess that worried me a bit. Funnily enough, the problem has a surprisingly simple solution. (I am not saying you will get there easily. I am just saying that once you do, you will realise the solution was not very complicated.)

Give it some thought!

**Remember**:

- there are infinitely many primes; however
- they become scarcer and scarcer the further you go down the number line.

Congratulations π to everyone who managed to solve this problem: Congratulations to you if you managed to solve this problem correctly! If you did, feel free to

- Rodrigo G. S., Portugal π΅πΉ (<- example);

If *you* managed to solve this problem, you can add your name to the list!
You can also email me your solution and we can discuss it.

A thing I like about this problem is that not only can you prove that interesting statement about the prime numbers, but you can also determine exactly what the lower bound \(n_0\) is.

Let us say that \(p_k\) is the \(k\)-th prime. Then, if we set \(n_0 = p_k\), we are good to go. Let me show you why.

Suppose that \(n\) is any integer \(n \geq n_0\). Then, the interval \([1, n]\) contains \(p_k\) in it. Why? Because \(p_k = n_0\) and \(n \geq n_0\).

So, the interval \([1, n]\) contains \(k\) *or more* prime numbers.
If it contains \(k\) prime numbers, we just found our interval of length \(n\) that contains exactly \(k\) primes.
If it contains more than \(k\) primes, we must do something about it.

If the interval \([1, n]\) contains more than \(k\) prime numbers, then we start sliding the interval to the right, like so:

\[ [1, n] \rightarrow [2, n+1] \rightarrow [3, n+2] \rightarrow [4, n+3] \rightarrow \cdots \rightarrow [1 + s, n + s]\]

If we slide the interval for enough time, we will eventually find an \(s\) such that the interval \([1 + s, n + s]\) contains exactly \(k\) primes. But how can I be so sure?

Remember that the interval \([1, n]\) has more than \(k\) primes (because we assumed it did). Every time you slide the interval to the right by one unit, two things happen:

- a number leaves the interval on the left; and
- a new number enters the interval on the right.

The numbers entering and leaving the interval may or may not be prime (we don't know),
but we know *for sure* that the number of prime numbers inside the interval can only fluctuate by one:

- if the number leaving is prime and the number entering isn't, the quantity of primes inside the interval goes down by 1;
- if the number leaving is prime and the number entering is prime, the quantity of primes inside the interval stays the same; and
- if the number leaving isn't prime and the number entering is prime, the quantity of primes inside the interval goes up by 1.

For example, the interval \([1, 6]\) contains \(3\) primes: \(2\), \(3\), and \(5\). If we slide it to \([2, 7]\), the number \(1\) leaves the interval and the number \(7\) enters the interval and the number of prime numbers in the interval goes up from \(3\) to \(4\): \(2\), \(3\), \(5\), \(7\). If we slide it once more, we get to \([3, 8]\) and we go back to \(3\) prime numbers (because \(2\) is prime and left the interval but \(8\) is not prime).

So, we see that sliding the interval to the right will make the number of primes inside it fluctuate by a maximum of one at a time.

At the same time, we know that if we slide for long enough (that is, if \(s\) becomes large enough),
the total number of prime numbers inside the interval must go below \(k\)!
If it didn't β if the number of prime numbers in the interval \([1 + s, n + s]\) were always greater than \(k\) for *any* value of \(s\) β,
then the proportion of prime numbers among the integers would be above \(k / n\).
We know that that isn't possible, so there must be a value of \(s'\) for which \([1 + s', n + s']\) already has less than \(k\) prime numbers.

To conclude, if \([1, n]\) has more than \(k\) prime numbers, if \([1 + s', n + s']\) has less than \(k\) prime numbers, and if the number of prime numbers inside an interval can only go up or down by \(1\), there was a value of \(s < s'\) such that the interval \([1 + s, n + s]\) contains exactly \(k\) prime numbers.

Don't forget to subscribe to the newsletter to get bi-weekly problems sent straight to your inbox.

If you enjoyed this blog article, you will love the mathspp insider ππ newsletter! Join +16.000 others who are taking their Python π skills to the next level! π