Google gets its geek on in patent auction

Sometimes auction bidders make sure to bid the absolute highest amount they are willing to pay to win. But very occasionally bidders are just there to amuse themselves.

That appears to be the case with Google, which failed last week to win an auction for wireless patents belonging to liquidated company Nortel Networks. Google had been expected to win after announcing before the formal auction process that it was willing to pay $900 million. In the event, the four-day auction would up with a consortium of six companies, including Apple and Microsoft, teaming up for the winning bid of $4.5 billion.

But despite losing, Google raised eyebrows with a series of very precise bids, including $1,902,160,540, $2,614,972,128, and $3.14159 billion,

It was the last of the bids that tipped off onlookers that there was a method to Google’s madness: the bid was equal to a billion dollars times pi, which at least could have come in handy if, for some reason, the bankruptcy court wanted to take payment in dollar bills and arrange them in a circle.

While I’m sure some of you are already ahead of me, the first two bids also had mathematical significance. The former figure is a billion times Brun’s constant. The formal explanation of that is that the sum of the reciprocals of the twin primes is convergent with Brun’s constant.

Put another way, if you take the sum of a third and a fifth, then add the sum of a fifth and a seventh, then add the sum of an eleventh and a thirteenth, and so on (each pair being the next pair of prime numbers that differs by two), the result will get closer and closer to Brun’s constant the further along you go and theoretically will eventually equal it.

Meanwhile the second number was the Messel-Mertens constant and as for what that means, well, let’s just say I’m a words rather than numbers guy.

Those may not have been the only deliberate bids made: there are also reports that as the bidding approached the $100 million point, Google offered an amount suspiciously close to the distance between the Earth and Sun in miles.

Most reports suggest Google was simply amusing itself with the bids, a throwback to its IPO valuation of $2,718,281,828, or e (the mathematical constant) times a billion. But there’s also some speculation the company had little interest in the patents unless it could get a bargain price and was thus simply trying to confuse its rivals into paying well over the odds.