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The Sieve of Aritosthanes

So how can we find prime numbers? If all you want is a quick list of the primes between two numbers an ancient Greek mathematician has a method for you.

Say you want to find a list of all the primes between 2 and 50. The process goes like this. First write out all of the numbers between 1 and 50.

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50

Now find the first prime on the list and underline it. In this case that's the 2.

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50

Now cross out all of the multiples of that number. In this case that means 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, ... (It's hard to cross things out on a web page so I'm going to make them gray instead.)

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50

Now pick the next prime number on the list and underline it. In our case, that's the 3.

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50

Now, again, cross out (or color gray) all of the multiples of 3.

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50

Now we keep doing the same thing over and over again until we've either crossed out or underlined every number. The next prime on the list is 5 so we underline it and cross out all of its multiples.

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50

Now we do the process with the 7.

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50

Repeating this with the remaining numbers, you end up with this:

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50

This process of finding a prime then eliminating all of its multiples is called the Sieve of Eratosthenes, named after the 3rd century B.C. Greek mathematician who first used it.

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