SICP in Python: 1.1 The Elements of Programming

I’m writing a series of posts about SICP in Python. You can read more about the reasoning in the introductory post.

The first chapter is about building abstractions with functions. I think it’s remarkable that a book for beginners (pretty smart beginners, but still) introduces assignment only in the third chapter (on page 220). I really think this is the way to start a programming course. Probably all students know about mathematical functions and with functions we can talk about things like bound variables, scope, abstraction, composition, and recursion.

A powerful language needs to have the following things to allow the combination of simple ideas to form complex ideas:

  • primitive expressions: the simplest entities in a language.
    Things like numbers and arithmetic operations and functions.
  • means of combination: “by which compound elements are built
    from simpler ones”. Nesting combinations, such as square(2 *
    square(3 + 7)) are simple means of combination.
  • means of abstraction: “by which compound elements can be named
    and manipulated as units”.

def is the simplest mean of abstraction. The following code creates a function and associates it with a name:

It’s important to make the distinction of the act of creating a function and naming it. We can create a function without a name (an anonymous function) with lambda:

And we can assign it to a variable, giving it a name:

And, in fact, we can see (with the help of the bytecode disassembler module) that Python will generate the same bytecode for both square and square2:

Having defined square, we can use it in combinations:

And, naturally, we can use square as a building block:

The association between names and values, such as the name of a function, is saved in a place called the environment. Chapter 3 will talk about the environment in greater detail.

Applicative order and normal order

To evaluate combinations we follow a recursive rule (quoted verbatim):

  1. Evaluate the subexpressions of the combination.
  2. Apply the procedure that is the value of the leftmost subexpression (the operator) to the arguments that are the values of the other subexpressions (the operands).

The substitution model is a simple model to help us understand what happens during evaluation. To evaluate procedures we have the following rule:

To apply a compound procedure to arguments, evaluate the body of the
procedure with each formal parameter replaced by the corresponding

Keep in mind that “the purpose of the substitution is to help us think about procedure application, not to provide a description of how the interpreter really works” and SICP presents “a sequence of increasingly elaborate models of how interpreters work, culminating with a complete implementation of an interpreter and compiler in chapter 5”.

In the example below we can see two ways to evaluate the function f we defined previously. The function f is defined in terms of sum_of_squares, which is defined in terms of square, which is defined as the multiplication of a number by itself. In the evaluation method on the left, an expression such as 5+1 is evaluated and applied immediately. This method of evaluation is known as applicative order evaluation (a kind of strict evaluation, used in most programming languages, inclusive Python and Scheme). The evaluation method on the right only evaluates an expression when needed. It’ll fully expand all function calls first, and then evaluate what’s left. This is known as normal order evaluation. Compare the result of both methods in line 5:

Of course both methods yield the same answer, but this will not always be the case, as we’ll see latter in this post (exercise 1.5) and in this series.

Conditional expressions and predicates

The main point of this sub-section is to show how to write conditional expressions in Scheme by implementing a function named abs to calculate the absolute value of a number. Since abs is a built-in function in Python,  I’ll use myabs (it’s pretty hard not to think about cheesy late-night infomercials with a function named like this ;-)). The first implementation follows the mathematical definition and uses multiple predicates:

This is unnecessarily long and can be shortened as:

And it can be even shorter by using the ternary operator (new in Python 2.5):

This sub-section also shows logical operators such as and, or, and not. For instance, in Scheme the expression 5 < x < 10 would be written as (and (> x 5) (< x 10)) but the same thing in Python is just 5 < x < 10. Pretty cool, huh?

Exercise 1.4

This exercise asks the reader to describe the behavior of the following procedure. I’ll use the original Scheme code, then I’ll show the equivalent in Python.

This code may look weird at first (and I’m not talking about the parenthesis ;-)), but we can just apply the substitution model to understand how it works. Let’s copy the function’s body:

((if (> b 0) + -) a b)

If b is greater than 0, the conditional expression will return the + (addition) function, otherwise it’ll return the – (subtraction) function. In Scheme + and – are functions, just like sqrt. Let’s suppose that b is greater than 0 and the conditional expression will return +. We substitute + for the conditional expression:

(+ a b)

The resulting expression is just the sum of a and b. This kind of thing is possible because in Scheme functions are first-class; we can create them at runtime, pass them as arguments to other functions, and return them as values.

Functions are also first-class in Python, but + and – are not functions. We can access Python’s basic operators with the operator module. For instance, operator.add(2, 2) is equivalent to the expression 2 + 2. So, we can write the Scheme code above in Python as:

Exercise 1.5

This exercise asks the reader to describe the behavior of the following code if the interpreter uses applicative order evaluation and normal order evaluation.

In applicative order evaluation, the interpreter will enter in an infinite loop, regardless of the value of test‘s first argument, because both operands will be evaluated before the function is called (line 7). With normal order evaluation, the interpreter will evaluate only what is necessary, so if the first argument of test is 0, it’ll return 0 because the second argument will not be evaluated.

Example: square roots by Newton’s method

One way to calculate square roots is by using Newton’s method of successive approximations. We start with a guess g for the square root of a number x and calculate a better guess by averaging g with x/g, or:


The following procedure tests if the guess we have is good enough for the number x (the radicand) we want to compute the square root. If not it’ll keep trying to improve the guess until it’s good enough:

To improve a guess we average it by the number x divided by the guess:

Average is easy enough to define:

Of course, we need to define is_good_enough. A basic test is to see if the square of the guess minus the original number x is smaller than some threshold (we use 0.001). This is not a good test for very small and large numbers (see exercise 1.7 in the book) but will do for a first try:

Finally, we need to start at some point. We begin with 1.0 as a guess:

Procedures as black-box abstractions

One problem with our implementation of sqrt is that functions like is_good_enough, sqrt_iter and improve are cluttering the global namespace. It’s very important to decompose a problem in sub-parts like we did, were each function does only one thing, but it’s also important to be able to group things that are not going to be used in other contexts (like improve and sqrt_iter). One solution is to nest the procedures in one block structure:

Now the functions sqrt_iter, is_good_enough, and improve are internal to sqrt and are not exposed to other programmers.

But there’s something else. The variable x is bound in the scope of sqrt and since improve, is_good_enough, and sqrt_iter are in the scope of sqrt we don’t need to pass x explicitly as as argument to these functions. We can rewrite the code to make x a free variable inside these functions. In this case the interpreter will get the value of x from the enclosing scope. This is an example of lexical scoping:


In the first section of SICP the authors introduce the notion of the environment and lexical scoping (both will be explored in more detail latter in the book), evaluation methods, and, above all, functional abstraction. I think this is a pretty sophisticated introduction for beginners and shows why SICP is considered one of the classics of computer science.

The notes for section 1.2 will come soon. Meanwhile, feel free to post suggestions and questions in the comments.