Skip to main content

Numeric values

Monday, 4 February 2019
We examine a variety of issues pertaining to numeric values in Racket, including the types of numbers that Racket supports and some common numeric functions.
An abbreviated introduction to Racket. Data types.


Computer scientists write algorithms for a variety of problems. Some types of computation, such as representation of knowledge, use symbols and lists. Others, such as the construction of Web pages, may involve the manipulation of strings (sequences of alphabetic characters). Even when working with text, a significant amount of computation involves numbers. And, even though numbers seem simple, it turns out that there are some subtleties to the representation of numbers in Racket.

As you may recall from our first discussion of data types, when learning about data types, you should consider the name of teach type, its purpose, how DrRacket displays values in the type, how you express those values, and what operations are available for those values.

While it seems like “numbers” is an obvious name for this type, Racket provides multiple kinds of numeric values. In each case, the purpose is the same: to support computation that involves numbers.

Categories of numeric values

As you probably learned in secondary school, there are a variety of categories of numeric values. The most common categories are integers, (numbers with no fractional component), rational numbers (numbers that can be expressed as the ratio of two integers), and real numbers (numbers that can be plotted on a number line). DrRacket also permits complex numbers (numbers that can include an imaginary component).

In traditional mathematics, each category is a subset of the next category. That is, every integer is a rational number because it can be expressed with a denominator of zero, every rational number is a real number because it can be plotted on the number line, and every real number is complex because it can be expressed with a an imaginary component of zero.

In contrast, Racket does not readily distinguish the rational and real numbers. There’s an underlying philosophy for this choice; behind the scenes, every real number is represented as a rational number.

However, Racket does distinguish between numbers in another way: Some numbers it represents precisely and some numbers it approximates. Why does it make that choice? In part, because most programming languages include at least one approximate representation. In part, because working with precise representations of very large numbers may be both computationally expensive and misleading (e.g., we may think that our computations are more prceise than they are).

How can you tell the difference? When DrRacket displays a number that may be approximated (which we will refer to as an inexact number), it includes a decimal point, an exponentional component in the result, or both.

> (sqrt 2) ; The square root of 2
> (expt 3.0 100) ; 3.0 to the 100th power

Why is the square root of 2 approximated? Because it’s impossible to represent precisely as a finite decimal number. That means that DrRacket approximates it. And, because it’s approximated, our calculations using that result will also be approximate.

> (* (sqrt 2) (sqrt 2))

The decimal sign warns us that we are straying into the realm of estimations and approximations.

In contrast, when displaying a number that it has represented exactly, DrRacket includes no decimal point.

> (/ 3 6)
> (expt 3 100)
> (sqrt -4)

You can express values to DrRacket using similar notation. That is, when you want an exact number, you do not include a decimal point or the exponent. When you want a constant rational number (one that does not involve variables), you can write the numerator, a slash, and the denominator. When you want a complex number, you write a plus sign between the two halves and put an i at the end.

> 1/2
> 0.5
> 1/7
> (* 3+4i 0+1i)

If you’ve been keeping track, you may have realized that we have at least six different kinds of numbers in DrRacket: exact integers, inexact integers, exact real/rational numbers (we’ll call these “rational numbers”), inexact real/rational numbers (we’ll call these “real numbers”), exact complex numbers, and inexact complex numbers. You will find that each has its own particular use. When we want to be precise, such as when dealing with financial matters, we will use exact numbers (most likely, exact integers). When the computation does not permit exact representation, such as when we start to deal with certain square roots, we will use inexact values. What about complex numbers? We’ll generally leave those to the physicists.

When describing the procedures that work with numbers, we should try to describe how the type of the result depends on the type of the input. For example, the addition operator, ,+ provides an exact result only when all of its inputs are exact.

> (+ 2 3 4)
> (+ 2 3.0 4)
> (+ 2 1/3 5)
> (+ 2 3.0 -3.0)

As the final example suggests, Racket will give an inexact output even if the inexact components “cancel out”. That’s a sensible approach; once you’ve introduced approximations into your computation, you should accept that it’s approximate.

3. Numeric operations

You’ve already enountered the four basic arithmetic operations of addition (+), subtraction (-), multiplication (*), and division (/). But those are not the only basic arithmetic operations available. Racket also provides a host of other numeric operations. We’ll introduce most as they become necessary. For now, we’ll start with a few basics.

3.1. Integer division

In addition to “real division”, Racket also provides two procedures that handle “integer division”, quotient and remainder. Integer division is is likely the kind of division you first learned; when you divide one integer by a number, you get an integer result (the quotient) with, potentially, some left over (the remainder). For example, if you have to divide eleven jelly beans among four people, each person will get two (the quotient) and you’ll have three left over (the remainder).

> (quotient 11 4)
> (remainder 11 4)
> (quotient 15 5)
> (remainder 15 5)

You can also do integer division with inexact integers. In that case, you will get an inexact result.

> (quotient 11 4.0)
> (remainder 11.0 4)

We do not recommend that you use inexact integers. Nonetheless, when exploring a new procedure, it is useful to consider the different kinds of inputs that the procedure might or might not take. And, on that note, let’s see what happens when you try to do integer division with non-integers.

> (quotient 11/2 2)
quotient: contract violation
  expected: integer?
  given: 11/2
  argument position: 1st
  other arguments...:
> (remainder 11 2.5)
remainder: contract violation
  expected: integer?
  given: 2.5
  argument position: 2nd
  other arguments...:

As you might have expected, DrRacket issues errors for each of those cases.

What about negative integers? When you first learned integer division, you probably didn’t think about what happened when the dividend or divisor is negative. But the designers of these operations needed to decide how to handle those cases. Let’s see what happens.

> (quotient -11 4)
> (remainder -11 4)
> (quotient 11 -4)
> (remainder 11 -4)
> (quotient -11 -4)
> (remainder -11 -4)

The first pair makes sense because -11 = -2*4 + -3. The second pair makes sense because 11 = -2*-4 + 3. The third pair makes sense because -11 = 2*-4 + -3. So all of the computations are consistent. But why don’t we say that -11 = -3*4 + 1, which also seems to give a quotient and remainder? The designers of these operations decided that the remainder should always have the same sign as the dividend, which therefore tells us what the quotient should be.

While that’s likely more detail than you needed to know, it’s important to remember that what happens in most procedures are not because of some universal law, but because a designer made a decision, one that should have some underlying rationale.

3.2. Roots and exponents

As you’ve seen, Racket provides ways to compute the square root of a number, using (sqrt x n) and to compute “x to the n” using (expt x n). When given inexact inputs, both return inexact results. Both will provide an exact output if they are able to compute one and an inexact output otherwise.

> (sqrt 4)
> (sqrt 4.0)
> (sqrt 2)
> (sqrt -16)
> (sqrt -2)
> (sqrt 1+1i)
> (expt 2 10)
> (expt 2 10.0)
> (expt 2.0 10)
> (expt 3 -5)
> (expt 4 1/2)
> (expt 1/9 1/2)
> (expt 2 1/2)
> (expt 243 1/5)
> (expt 1+1i 4)
> (expt 1.0+1.0i 4)

3.3. Finding small and large values

Racket provides the (max val1 val2 ...) and (min val1 val2 ...) procedures to find the largest or smallest in a set of values. Both of these procedures will produce an exact number only when all of the arguments are exact. As you might expect, the value produced will be an integer only when it meets the criterion of being largest or smallest.

> (max 1 2 3)
> (max 3 1 2)
> (max 2 1 3)
> (max 1 2 3 1.5)
> (max 1 1/3 3 1/5)
> (max 7/2 2 3)
> (min 1 1/3 3)
> (min 3 1 2 4 8 7 -1)
> (min 3 1 2 4/3 8.0 7)
> (min 3 1 2+1i)
min: contract violation
  expected: real?
  given: 2+1i
  argument position: 3rd
  other arguments...:

As the last example suggests, max and min won’t work with complex numbers.

3.4. Extracting parts of compound values

Racket also provides a way to “pull apart” rational and complex numbers using the procedures (numerator num), (denominator num), (real-part num) and (imag-part num).

> (numerator 3/5)
> (denominator 3/5)
> (numerator -13/7)
> (denominator -13/7)
> (numerator 0.5)
> (denominator 0.5)
> (numerator 11)
> (denominator 11.0)
> (real-part 3+4i)
> (imag-part 3+4i)
> (real-part 5.0+11.0i)
> (imag-part 5.0+11.0i)
> (real-part 1/3)
> (imag-part 1/3)

3.5. Rounding

Racket provides four different ways to round real numbers to nearby integers. (round num) rounds to the nearest integer. (floor num) rounds down. (ceiling num) rounds up. (truncate num) throws away the fractional part, effectively rounding toward zero.

> (round 3.2)
> (round 3.8)
> (floor 3.8)
> (ceiling 3.8)
> (truncate 3.8)
> (floor -3.8)
> (truncate -3.8)

4. Self Checks

Check 1: Exploring exponentiation

In the examples above, we gave a wide variety of examples of the expt procedure in action. Each was intended to reveal something different about that procedure. They were also intended to suggest the kinds of exploration you might do when you encounter or design a new procedure.

Suggest what we are trying to reveal for each of the following. For example, the for the second, you might note that the first example suggests that if the exponent is inexact, the result is inexact, even if the base and the exponent are integers.

(expt 2 10.0)
(expt 2.0 10)
(expt 3 -5)
(expt 4 1/2)
(expt 1/9 1/2)
(expt 2 1/2)
(expt 243 1/5)
(expt 1+i 4)
(expt 1.0+i 4)