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I've written some Python 3 code that computes the \$n\$-th prime. I implemented first a naive isprime function that looks for divisors of \$m\$ between \$2\$ and \$\lfloor \sqrt m \rfloor+1\$. Then a loop looks for primes and stops when the \$n\$th one is found.

from math import sqrt
def isprime(n):
    for i in range(2,int(sqrt(n))+1):
        if n%i==0:
            return False
    return True

def prime(n):
    m=3
    i=2
    ans=3
    while i<=n:
        if isprime(m):
            i=i+1

            ans=m
            m=m+2
        else:
            m=m+2
    return ans

It occured to me that prime performs a lot of unnecessary computations: for a given \$m\$, it checks if composite numbers (like 14,16) divide \$m\$. That is useless, and it would be more efficient to look only for prime divisors of \$m\$. This led me to some "storage" approach, where I maintain a list of all the primes I've found, and use them to test for divisors of the next numbers.

from math import sqrt
def prime(n):
    list=[2]
    i=1
    m=3
    while i<n:
        flag=0
        for p in list:
            if m%p==0:
                flag=1
                break
            else:
                continue
        if flag==0:

            list.append(m)
            m=m+2
            i=i+1
        else:
            m=m+2
    return list

The \$n\$th prime is given by prime(n)[-1]

I have an issue with the performance of the second code: it's really slow. On my computer, according to the Unix command time python code.py, computing the \$6000\$-th prime with the first code takes \$0.231\$ seconds, and \$2.799\$ seconds with the other approach!

Why is the clever way slower than the naive one?

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SuperBiasedMan made a very good answer. However there is still a performance problem with the cache/list.

Lets say we are finding the 11th prime. We will have the following cache:

[2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29]

The 11th prime is 31. But we will check against 29, even though we know that can't be a factor until the number becomes 58.

What I'm trying to say is, your first function will only try up to \$\sqrt{31}\$, where your new function tries up to \$31\$.

A simple 'I'm no mathematician' approach to fix this is to just filter the list.

sqrt = math.sqrt(m)
for prime in (i for i in list if i <= sqrt):
    # The rest

This however suffers from the problem of testing all the numbers too. However rather than the test being m % prime == 0, it is now i <= sqrt.

To fix this you can create a generator, and break at i > sqrt.

def filter_cache(num, cache):
    sqrt = math.sqrt(num)
    for prime in cache:
        if prime > sqrt:
            break
        yield prime

for prime in filter_cache(m, list):
    # The rest

This should be faster than both methods. However your first 'naive' approach will be faster at small numbers.


There is an improved version of the naive program, where you count in steps of 6. And check either side of that number, so \$6n-1\$ and \$6n+1\$.

Thank you JDługosz for the algorithm.

This algorithm means that there is 1/3 less checks to make. However you will need to start with a cache / list pre-generated with [2, 3].

I use SuperBiasedMan's cache optimization.

def prime(wanted_index, cache=[2, 3]):
    try:
        return cache[wanted_index - 1]
    except IndexError:
        pass

    def filter_cache(num):
        sqrt = math.sqrt(num)
        for prime in cache:
            if prime > sqrt:
                break
            yield prime

    def add_prime(num):
        for prime in filter_cache(num):
            if num % prime == 0:
                return index
        cache.append(num)
        return index + 1

    index = len(cache)
    prime_counter = (
        0
        if index == 2 else
            cache[-1] + 1
            if (cache[-1] + 1) % 6 == 0 else
            cache[-1] - 1
    )
    while index < wanted_index:
        prime_counter += 6
        index = add_prime(prime_counter - 1)
        index = add_prime(prime_counter + 1)

    return cache[wanted_index - 1]

Even though it is quite large it's quite simple. The only strange part would be add_prime. This is as it takes a number, and if it is prime adds it to the cache. The special part about this is that cache.append modifies prime's cache. However if we were to do index += 1 we would get UnboundLocalError.

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  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Adding the square root optimization on the second code made it significantly faster, even faster than the first one. \$\endgroup\$ – Gabriel Romon Sep 12 '15 at 16:48
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Count by 6 and use the values to either side. That is, 6n+1 and 6n-1. \$\endgroup\$ – JDługosz Sep 13 '15 at 5:50
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First, you should read the Python style guide it has a lot of info on good practices for code readability.

But as for your code, part of the reason the smarter way is slower is that you're creating the whole list every time. It's not stored at all when you create it and this means that instead you're just taking extra time because it has to go through the effort of building the list every time even though you only need the last value. Also, you're not limiting what primes you test for division, so you've lost the root optimisation you used before.

If you cached this list as part of the function then you actually would have time saved on repeated calls, though it would still be slower initially due to building the initial list. There is a way to set up a cache pretty easily, using default parameters. If you're unfamiliar with them, leave a comment and I can explain more about how they're generally used, though I'm using them in a different way than normal here.

If you change def prime(n) to def prime(n, cache=[2]) then you'll have a list called cache created containing 2, the first prime. Each time you call prime it refers back to the same list, so if you append your primes to it, it will be retained and save you all that work.

First of all, this means you might not need to calculate anything when you start. You can just try to return your prime value immediately:

def prime(n, cache=[2]):
    try:
        return cache[n - 1]
    except IndexError:
        pass

To explain, try except is used to attempt a piece of code that may generate an error. So it tries to return the nth prime (use n-1 because lists are indexed from 0) but if it can't find that value in the list it will throw an IndexError. Our except will catch this and just pass, meaning it goes on to run the rest of the function.

The other benefit is you can start your while loop from the last point in that list. So m (which I'd rename as num) can just be the last prime cached + 1 and i can be set as len(cache), since that's the amount of previous primes we're skipping.

i = len(cache)
num = cache[-1] + 1

Now you can begin your while loop, skipping the previously found values but still having them as your divisor check. Note also, you can collapse this with some other syntax and smarter logic. Python has else syntax for a for loop. If you never call break from a for loop then the else will be run, but otherwise it will be skipped. With this in mind you can remove multiple lines where you had to use flag before. Also if you're calling m = m + 2 in both cases, it should just be at the end for both conditions. And lastly, you can shorten var = var + 1 to var += 1 in Python, so I did that too.

while i < n:
    for prime in cache:
        if num % prime == 0:
            break
    else:
        cache.append(num)
        i += 1
    num += 2

Here's how the fully rewritten code would look:

def prime(n, cache=[2]):

    try:
        return cache[n - 1]
    except IndexError:
        pass

    i = len(cache)
    num = cache[-1] + 1

    while i < n:
        for prime in cache:
            if num % prime == 0:
                break
        else:
            cache.append(num)
            i += 1
        num += 2

    return cache[-1]
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't understand why the original code creates a new list each time. I mean, isn't the list variable created for good at the beginning of the program and then appended ? I don't get how using a cache variable changes anything. \$\endgroup\$ – Gabriel Romon Sep 12 '15 at 17:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @LeGrandDODOM the reason is because in your code the list is only kept for each individual function call. This is true for any function. If you look up a topic called variable scoping you can learn about it, it's common among many programming languages. \$\endgroup\$ – SuperBiasedMan Sep 12 '15 at 17:24
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A significantly faster method is to implement the Sieve of Eratosthenes (Google it). The only problem is that to find the 6000th prime number, for example, you must make the sieve big enough so that it will contain 6000 prime numbers, but not much bigger to avoid wasting time.

So you need to know roughly how large the 6,000th prime number is, but, there are estimates and you just need an estimate that is too large but not much too large.

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