Watch How Computers Sort Lists (It's Complicated)

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Here's a thought experiment: Let's say you're a librarian, and a shipment of 1,280 books has just arrived. The books have been placed on a very long shelf, but they're all out of order. You need to alphabetize them by title as soon as possible. How long will this process take, and how can you maximize efficiency?

In this TED-Ed video, we see various solutions to this problem. It's a generalized problem within information science, having to do with how we sort items in a list. In this case, the "list" is a bunch of books, but any alphanumeric list (names, words, street addresses) would need a similar kind of approach.

When you first look at the problem, it's hard to sort out precisely how humans actually perform the task of alphabetization. For the most part, we tend to take a naive approach to the problem, just grabbing items and putting them in some rough order, then repeat until complete. This is fine, until you have 1,280 items and a deadline.

So check out the video below (and the TED-Ed lesson page) to see how novel approaches to sorting can speed up the task dramatically.

If you're into computer science and/or don't like videos, check out this page on sorting algorithms, from a Carnegie Mellon University computer science class. (See also: this page on QuickSort.