Binary Search Algorithm

Last modified
June 16, 2020
Time to read
1 min read

Photo by Lili Kovac

Table of Contents

Binary search is an efficient search algorithm on a sorted array of elements. The binary search algorithm comes from a family of algorithms called divide and conquer, but the terminology isn't too important for this discussion. In this article, I want to convince you that you probably already use the binary search algorithm in your life.

Binary Search in the Real World

Let's say you're at an AirBnB in a remote location on a weekend getaway. You want to disconnect for a while, so you go to a place where there's no internet. You want to use this weekend to read science fiction novels.

You are reading your book one night and you stumble on a word you don't know. The word happened to be octothorpe.

You walk over to the bookshelf to look for a dictionary. Ah, there it is.

You sit down and open up the dictionary and begin searching for octothorpe. What do you do?

Well, you know the words in the dictionary are sorted, so you open up the dictionary to somewhere in the middle.

You see words on the page you opened up begin with the letter "G". Octothorpe cannot possibly be on any page earlier than the page with the "G" words. So you completely disregard the pages earlier than the one with the "G" words.

What do you do next? You repeat the process on the remaining pages after the page with the "G" words. You keep repeating this process until you have found the page with "octothorpe".

This is exactly how binary search works. Binary search looks in the middle of a sorted array of elements. If the key you are looking for is greater than the value that happened to be in the middle, then you can safely disregard all the previous elements.

This is what makes binary search so efficient. At every step of binary search, you are eliminating half of the remaining elements. Eventually, the search space will be a single element, and the algorithm will terminate.

Still confused?

Check out this excellent explanation from Harvard's CS50 course.

Last modified
June 16, 2020
Time to read
1 min read

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