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Binary Search

Binary Search as Applied to Arrays



Now that we know what binary search is, let's look at it in relation to computer science. In general, binary search operates on one of two data structures: arrays and trees. This guide will only cover binary search on arrays. If you are interested in binary search trees, please see the SparkNote on trees.

The first thing to do when coding up any algorithm is to define the algorithm clearly and in such a way that it is easy to turn into code.

Binary Search Algorithm for Arrays

The array that we are searching must be sorted for binary search to work. For this example, we'll assume that the input array is sorted in ascending order. The basic idea is that you divide the array being searched into two subarrays, and compare the middle element to the value for which you're searching. There are now three possible cases: 1. The value is equal to the middle element. In this case, the element has been found and you are done. 2. The value is greater than the middle element. In this case, if the value is in the array, it will be in the upper half of the array (ie. one of the elements after the middle element). 3. The value is less than the middle element. In this case, if the value is in the array, it will be one of the elements in the lower half of the array, before the middle element.

For cases 2 or 3, we take the proper subarray (either the array of elements before the middle element or the one after it) and repeat the same process: We compare the middle element in the subarray to the value. If the value is equal to the middle element, we are done. Otherwise, we perform a search on one of these new subarrays.

Now in more detailed terms: 1. Compute the subscript of the middle element of the set being searched. 2. If the array bounds are "improper" then return "value not found." 3. Else if the target is the middle element, return the subscript of the middle element. 4. Else if the target is less than the middle value then go back to step 1 and search the subarray from "first" to "middle - 1." 5. Else go back to step 1 and search the subarray from "middle + 1" to "last."

We should have no problem now turning this into code:

int binary_search(int arr[], int find, 
		  int first, int last)
	int middle, found;

	found = 0;
	while((first <= last) && !found) {

		/* Step 1 */
		middle = (first + last) / 2;

		/* Step 3 */
		if (arr[middle] == find) 
			found = 1; 

		/* Step 5 */
		else if (arr[middle] < find) 
			first = middle+1;

		/* Step 4 */
			last = middle - 1; 
	/* Step 3 */
	if (found) 
		return middle; 

	/* Step 2 */
		return -1; 

Let's see an example. Say we're searching for the value 37 in the following array:

Figure %: Array on which to perform a binary search

We set our low and our high values to be at the beginning and ends of the array, and our middle value to be their average:

Figure %: Set initial first, middle and last values

We then compare 37 to the value at the middle location. Is 37 = = 45 ? No, it is less than 45. So we update the last pointer to be middle - 1, and readjust the middle pointer accordingly:

Figure %: Now searching the bottom half

Is 37 = = 35 ? No. It is greater than 35. So we update the first and middle pointers accordingly:

Figure %: Now searching upper half of bottom half

Is 37 == 37? Yes! We found it:

Figure %: We found it!

Recursive implementation

For those of you who have studied recursion, you might notice that binary search fits the model for a function easily implemented recursively (in fact, the algorithm gets its name from the repeated halving of the data set). Let's see how we can implement this function recursively.

There are two possible base cases that will stop the recursive process: 1. If the value we're searching for is equal to the middle element, we're done. In this case, we have found the element and do not make another recursive call. 2. If the element is not in the array, eventually we will have divided the array in half so many times that we end up with an array with no elements. This is the signal that the element was not in the array and that we should not make any further recursive calls. The recursive case is easier: break the data into two halves, decide which half to keep, and recursively search that half.

Code for a recursive implementation of binary_search on an array of characters is below:

int binary_search(char find, char arr[], 
                  int start, int finish) 
	/* Get the middle place */
	int middle = (start + finish) / 2;

	/* If the start has passed the finish, 
	 * then the element isn't in the
	 * array.
	if (start > finish) return -1;

	/* Recursively do the left half, the 
	 * right half, or return the middle 
	 * element if it is what we were 
	 * searching for.
	if (arr[middle] < find) {
		return binary_search(find, arr, 
			  middle, finish);
	} else if (arr[middle] > find) {
		return binary_search(find, arr, 
			  start, middle);
	} else {
		return middle;

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