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Defining the Essential Python Data Types

Defining the Essential Python Data Types

Every programming language defines variables that hold specific kinds of information, and Python is no exception. The specific kind of variable is called a data type. Knowing the data type of a variable is important because it tells you what kind of information you find inside. In addition, when you want to store information in a variable, you need a variable of the correct data type to do it. Python doesn’t allow you to store text in a variable designed

to hold numeric information. Doing so would damage the text and cause problems with the application. You can generally classify Python data types as numeric, string, and Boolean, although there really isn’t any limit on just how you can view them. The following sections describe each of the standard Python data types within these classifications.



Putting information into variables

To place a value into any variable, you make an assignment using the assign- ment operator (=). Chapter 6 discusses the whole range of basic Python operators in more detail, but you need to know how to use this particular operator to some extent now. For example, to place the number 5 into a variable named myVar, you type myVar = 5 and press Enter at the Python prompt. Even though Python doesn’t provide any additional information to you, you can always type the variable name and press Enter to see the value it contains, as shown in Figure 5-1.



Figure 5-1: Use the assignment operator to place infor­ mation into a variable.



Understanding the numeric types

Humans tend to think about numbers in general terms. We view 1 and 1.0 as being the same number — one of them simply has a decimal point. However, as far as we’re concerned, the two numbers are equal and we could easily use them interchangeably. Python views them as being different kinds of numbers



because each form requires a different kind of processing. The following sec- tions describe the integer, floating-point, and complex number classes of data types that Python supports.



Any whole number is an integer. For example, the value 1 is a whole number, so it’s an integer. On the other hand, 1.0 isn’t a whole number; it has a deci- mal part to it, so it’s not an integer. Integers are represented by the int data type.


As with storage boxes, variables have capacity limits. Trying to stuff a value that’s too large into a storage box results in an error. On most plat- forms, you can store numbers between –9,223,372,036,854,775,808 and 9,223,372,036,854,775,807 within an int (which is the maximum value that fits in a 64-bit variable). Even though that’s a really large number, it isn’t infinite.


When working with the int type, you have access to a number of interesting features. Many of them appear later in the book, but one feature is the ability to use different numeric bases:


  • Base 2: Uses only 0 and 1 as
  • Base 8: Uses the numbers 0 through
  • Base 10: Uses the usual numeric
  • Base 16: Is also called hex and uses the numbers 0 through 9 and the let- ters A through F to create 16 different possible


To tell Python when to use bases other than base 10, you add a 0 and a spe- cial letter to the number. For example, 0b100 is the value one-zero-zero in base 2. Here are the letters you normally use:


  • b: Base 2
  • o: Base 8
  • x: Base 16


It’s also possible to convert numeric values to other bases using the bin(), oct(), and hex() commands. So, putting everything together, you can see how to convert between bases using the commands shown in Figure 5-2.

Try the command shown in the figure yourself so that you can see how the various bases work. Using a different base actually makes things easier in many situations, and you’ll encounter some of those situations later in the book. For now, all you really need to know is that integers support different numeric bases.










Figure 5-2: Integers have many interesting features, including the capabil­ ity to use different numeric bases.



Floating-point values

Any number that includes a decimal portion is a floating-point value. For example, 1.0 has a decimal part, so it’s a floating-point value. Many people get confused about whole numbers and floating-point numbers, but the difference is easy to remember. If you see a decimal in the number, then it’s a floating- point value. Python stores floating-point values in the float data type.


Floating-point values have an advantage over integer values in that you can store immensely large or incredibly small values in them. As with integer vari- ables, floating-point variables have a storage capacity. In their case, the maxi- mum value that a variable can contain is ±1.7976931348623157 × 10308 and the minimum value that a variable can contain is ±2.2250738585072014 × 10-308 on most platforms.


When working with floating-point values, you can assign the information to the variable in a number of ways. The two most common methods are to pro- vide the number directly and to use scientific notation. When using scientific notation, an e separates the number from its exponent. Figure 5-3 shows both methods of making an assignment. Notice that using a negative exponent results in a fractional value.








Figure 5-3: Floating­ point values

provide multiple assignment techniques.



Complex numbers

You may or may not remember complex numbers from school. A complex number consists of a real number and an imaginary number that are paired together. Just in case you’ve completely forgotten about complex numbers, you can read about them at complex-numbers.html. Real-world uses for complex numbers include:


  • Electrical engineering
  • Fluid dynamics
  • Quantum mechanics
  • Computer graphics
  • Dynamic systems


Complex numbers have other uses, too, but this list should give you some ideas. In general, if you aren’t involved in any of these disciplines, you prob- ably won’t ever encounter complex numbers. However, Python is one of the few languages that provides a built-in data type to support them. As you progress through the book, you find other ways in which Python lends itself especially well to science and engineering.


The imaginary part of a complex number always appears with a j after it. So, if you want to create a complex number with 3 as the real part and 4 as the imaginary part, you make an assignment like this:



If you want to see the real part of the variable, you simply type myComplex. real at the Python prompt and press Enter. Likewise, if you want to see the imaginary part of the variable, you type myComplex.imag at the Python prompt and press Enter.




Understanding the need for multiple number types


A lot of new developers (and even some older ones) have a hard time understanding why there is a need for more than one numeric type. After all, humans can use just one kind of number. To understand the need for multiple number types, you have to understand a little about how a computer works with numbers.

An integer is stored in the computer as simply a series of bits that the computer reads directly. A value of 0100 in binary equates to a value of 4 in decimal. On the other hand, numbers that have decimal points are stored in an entirely different manner. Think back to all those classes you slept through on exponents in school — they actu­ ally come in handy sometimes. A floating­point number is stored as a sign bit (plus or minus), mantissa (the fractional part of the number), and exponent (the power of 2). (Some texts use the term significand in place of mantissa — the terms are interchangeable.) To obtain the floating­point value, you use the equation:

Value = Mantissa * 2^Exponent

At one time, computers all used different floating­point representations, but they all use the IEEE­754 standard now. You can read about this standard at http://grouper. A full explana­ tion of precisely how floating­point numbers work is outside the scope of this book, but

you can read a fairly understandable descrip­ tion at http://www.cprogramming. com/tutorial/floating_point/ understanding_floating_point_ representation.html. Nothing helps you understand a concept like playing with the values. You can find a really interesting float­ ing­point number converter at http://www. IEEE754.html, where you can click the individual bits (to turn them off or on) and see the floating­point number that results.

As you might imagine, floating­point num­ bers tend to consume more space in memory because of their complexity. In addition, they use an entirely different area of the processor — one that works more slowly than the part used for integer math. Finally, integers are precise, as contrasted to floating­point numbers, which can’t precisely represent some numbers, so you get an approximation instead. However, floating­ point variables can store much larger numbers. The bottom line is that decimals are unavoid­ able in the real world, so you need floating­point numbers, but using integers when you can reduces the amount of memory your application consumes and helps it work faster. There are many trade­offs in computer systems, and this one is unavoidable.




Understanding Boolean values

It may seem amazing, but computers always give you a straight answer! A computer will never provide “maybe” as output. Every answer you get is either True or False. In fact, there is an entire branch of mathematics called Boolean algebra that was originally defined by George Boole (a super-geek of his time) that computers rely upon to make decisions. Contrary to common belief, Boolean algebra has existed since 1854 — long before the time of computers.






When using Boolean value in Python, you rely on the bool type. A variable of this type can contain only two values: True or False. You can assign a value by using the True or False keywords, or you can create an expression that defines a logical idea that equates to true or false. For example, you could say, myBool = 1 > 2, which would equate to False because 1 is most defi- nitely not greater than 2. You see the bool type used extensively in the book, so don’t worry about understanding this concept right now.



Understanding strings

Of all the data types, strings are the most easily understood by humans and not understood at all by computers. If you have read the previous chapters in this book, you have already seen strings used quite. For example, all the example code in Chapter 4 relies on strings. A string is simply any grouping of characters you place within double quotes. For example, myString = “Python is a great language.” assigns a string of characters to myString.


The computer doesn’t see letters at all. Every letter you use is represented by a number in memory. For example, the letter A is actually the number 65. To see this for yourself, type ord(“A”) at the Python prompt and press Enter. You see 65 as output. It’s possible to convert any single letter to its numeric equivalent using the ord() command.


Because the computer doesn’t really understand strings, but strings are so useful in writing applications, you sometimes need to convert a string to a number. You can use the int() and float() commands to perform this conversion. For example, if you type myInt = int(“123”) and press Enter at the Python prompt, you create an int named myInt that contains the value 123. Figure 5-4 shows how you can perform this task and validate the content and type of myInt.





Figure 5-4: Converting a string to a number is easy using the

int() and float() commands.



You can convert numbers to a string as well by using the str() command.

For example, if you type myStr = str(1234.56) and press Enter, you create a string containing the value “1234.56” and assign it to myStr. Figure 5-5

shows this type of conversion and the test you can perform on it. The point

is that you can go back and forth between strings and numbers with great ease. Later chapters demonstrate how these conversions make a lot of seem- ingly impossible tasks quite doable.



Figure 5-5: It’s possible to convert numbers to strings as