How to Use the Sieve Of Eratosthenes Algorithm

One day, while learning algorithms in JavaScript, I found this challenge:

Using a for loop, iterate from 0 to 100, and return an array of all prime numbers within that range.

It seemed easy initially, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. So I did a google search and discovered an algorithm that does it perfectly: the Sieve of Eratosthenes.

What is this sieve you speak of?

The Sieve of Eratosthenes is an ancient math algorithm created by Eratosthenes of Cyrene. It finds all prime numbers between 0 and a given limit.

Interesting! How does the Sieve of Eratosthenes work?

Let’s break it down:

  • Our input is a positive number representing the limit.
  • The algorithm loops through all numbers between 0 and our input.
  • In each iteration, if the number is a prime, it marks all multiples of that number as non-primes.

Cool right?! Now let’s solve our original challenge:

function getPrimes(input) { // Create an array where each element starts as true const numsArr = Array.from({ length: input + 1 }, () => true); // Create an array to store the prime numbers const primeNumbers = []; /* Loop through numsArr starting from numsArr[2] because 0 and 1 are definitely not prime numbers */ for (let i = 2; i <= input; i++) { // Check if numsArr[i] === true if (numsArr[i]) { // add the i to the primeNumbers array primeNumbers.push(i); /* convert all elements in the numsArr whose indexes are multiples of i to false */ for (let j = i + i; j <= input; j += i) { numsArr[j] = false; } } } return primeNumbers;
} console.log(getPrimes(100));

In the code above, we did the following:

  • Created an array of true elements. JavaScript arrays are zero-indexed, so we set length: input + 1 to take advantage of that.
  • Created primeNumbers[] to store the prime numbers.
  • Used a for loop to iterate over each element in numsArr[]. If the current element is true, add it to primeNumbers[] and convert all elements in multiples of its index to false.
  • Returned primeNumbers[], which now contains all the prime numbers with 0 and our input.

So this works, but there’s a slight problem (or a major one, depending on the input size). At some point during the loop, all possible non-primes in the array are already false, but reaching a true element still triggers its nested loop. That’s redundant!

Let’s optimize:

// Sieve of Eratosthenes Algorithm function getPrimes(input) { // Create an array where each element starts as true const numsArr = Array.from({ length: input + 1 }, () => true); // Loop through numsArr starting from numsArr[2] // keep running the loop until i is greater than the input's square root for (let i = 2; i <= Math.floor(Math.sqrt(input)); i++) { // Check if numsArr[i] === true if (numsArr[i]) { /* convert all elements in the numsArr whose indexes are multiples of i to false */ for (let j = i + i; j <= input; j += i) { numsArr[j] = false; } } } /* Using Array.prototype.reduce() method: loop through each element in numsArr[] if element === true, add the index of that element to result[] return result */ const primeNumbers = numsArr.reduce( (result, element, index) => element ? (result.push(index), result) : result, [] ); // Return primeNumbers[] return primeNumbers;
} console.log(getPrimes(100));

What’s happening in the code above?

Mathematically, it is impossible to get any new multiples past the square root of any given input.

To put it simply, by the time we get to the square root of input, all possible multiples in numsArr[] would already be converted to false, so there’s no need to keep checking for multiples.

So here’s what we did:

  • Updated the for loop to end when i <= Math.floor(Math.sqrt(input)) is false.
  • Used JavaScript’s reduce() method to loop through numsArr[] and return an array containing the index of all true elements.

Fun fact: This optimization will also work if we replace the first for loop with:

// keep running the loop until input is less than i^2 (i squared)
for (let i = 2; i * i <= input; i++) { // same super-awesome code hehehe!
}

Try it!

Nice! Are there any limitations to the Sieve of Eratosthenes? 👀

The Sieve of Eratosthenes works efficiently with small inputs – n < 10 million (is 10 million small???). However, larger inputs take a lot of time and memory. The segmented sieve is a proposed solution to this issue.

A few parting words

There are different versions of this algorithm, each tackling some of the limitations of the original.

Learning this algorithm broadened my knowledge of nested loops, prime numbers, and time complexity. To explore these topics in-depth, Check out the resources below.

Further reading on the Sieve of Eratosthenes

Posted by Contributor