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About Python


In this lecture we will

  • Outline what Python is
  • Showcase some of its abilities
  • Compare it to some other languages

At this stage it’s not our intention that you try to replicate all you see

We will work through what follows at a slow pace later in the lecture series

Our only objective for this lecture is to give you some feel of what Python is, and what it can do

What’s Python?

Python is a general purpose programming language conceived in 1989 by Dutch programmer Guido van Rossum

Python is free and open source, with development coordinated through the Python Software Foundation

Python has experienced rapid adoption in the last decade, and is now one of the most popular programming languages

Common Uses

Python is a general purpose language used in almost all application domains

  • communications
  • web development
  • CGI and graphical user interfaces
  • games
  • multimedia, data processing, security, etc., etc., etc.

Used extensively by Internet service and high tech companies such as

Often used to teach computer science and programming

For reasons we will discuss, Python is particularly popular within the scientific community

  • academia, NASA, CERN, Wall St., etc., etc.

Relative Popularity

The following chart, produced using Stack Overflow Trends, shows one measure of the relative popularity of Python

The figure indicates not only that Python is widely used but also that adoption of Python has accelerated significantly since 2012

We suspect this is driven at least in part by uptake in the scientific domain, particularly in rapidly growing fields like data science

For example, the popularity of pandas, a library for data analysis with Python has exploded, as seen here

(The corresponding time path for MATLAB is shown for comparison)

Note that pandas takes off in 2012, which is the same year that we seek Python’s popularity begin to spike in the first figure

Overall, it’s clear that


Python is a high level language suitable for rapid development

It has a relatively small core language supported by many libraries

Other features:

  • A multiparadigm language, in that multiple programming styles are supported (procedural, object-oriented, functional, etc.)
  • Interpreted rather than compiled

Syntax and Design

One nice feature of Python is its elegant syntax — we’ll see many examples later on

Elegant code might sound superfluous but in fact it’s highly beneficial because it makes the syntax easy to read and easy to remember

Remembering how to read from files, sort dictionaries and other such routine tasks means that you don’t need to break your flow in order to hunt down correct syntax

Closely related to elegant syntax is elegant design

Features like iterators, generators, decorators, list comprehensions, etc. make Python highly expressive, allowing you to get more done with less code

Namespaces improve productivity by cutting down on bugs and syntax errors

Scientific Programming

Python has become one of the core languages of scientific computing

It’s either the dominant player or a major player in

Its popularity in economics is also beginning to rise

This section briefly showcases some examples of Python for scientific programming

  • All of these topics will be covered in detail later on

Numerical programming

Fundamental matrix and array processing capabilities are provided by the excellent NumPy library

NumPy provides the basic array data type plus some simple processing operations

For example, let’s build some arrays

In [1]:
import numpy as np                     # Load the library

a = np.linspace(-np.pi, np.pi, 100)    # Create even grid from -π to π
b = np.cos(a)                          # Apply cosine to each element of a
c = np.sin(a)                          # Apply sin to each element of a

Now let’s take the inner product:

In [2]:
b @ c

The number you see here might vary slightly but it’s essentially zero

(For older versions of Python and NumPy you need to use the function)

The SciPy library is built on top of NumPy and provides additional functionality

For example, let’s calculate $ \int_{-2}^2 \phi(z) dz $ where $ \phi $ is the standard normal density

In [3]:
from scipy.stats import norm
from scipy.integrate import quad

ϕ = norm()
value, error = quad(ϕ.pdf, -2, 2)  # Integrate using Gaussian quadrature


The most popular and comprehensive Python library for creating figures and graphs is Matplotlib

  • Plots, histograms, contour images, 3D, bar charts, etc., etc.
  • Output in many formats (PDF, PNG, EPS, etc.)
  • LaTeX integration

Example 2D plot with embedded LaTeX annotations

Example contour plot

Example 3D plot

More examples can be found in the Matplotlib thumbnail gallery

Other graphics libraries include

Symbolic Algebra

It’s useful to be able to manipulate symbolic expressions, as in Mathematica or Maple

The SymPy library provides this functionality from within the Python shell

In [4]:
from sympy import Symbol

x, y = Symbol('x'), Symbol('y')  # Treat 'x' and 'y' as algebraic symbols
x + x + x + y
3*x + y

We can manipulate expressions

In [5]:
expression = (x + y)**2
x**2 + 2*x*y + y**2

solve polynomials

In [6]:
from sympy import solve

solve(x**2 + x + 2)
[-1/2 - sqrt(7)*I/2, -1/2 + sqrt(7)*I/2]

and calculate limits, derivatives and integrals

In [7]:
from sympy import limit, sin, diff

limit(1 / x, x, 0)
In [8]:
limit(sin(x) / x, x, 0)
In [9]:
diff(sin(x), x)

The beauty of importing this functionality into Python is that we are working within a fully fledged programming language

Can easily create tables of derivatives, generate LaTeX output, add it to figures, etc., etc.


Python’s data manipulation and statistics libraries have improved rapidly over the last few years


One of the most popular libraries for working with data is pandas

Pandas is fast, efficient, flexible and well designed

Here’s a simple example, using some fake data

In [10]:
import pandas as pd

data = np.random.randn(5, 2)  # 5x2 matrix of N(0, 1) random draws
dates = pd.date_range('28/12/2010', periods=5)

df = pd.DataFrame(data, columns=('price', 'weight'), index=dates)
               price    weight
2010-12-28  0.471435 -1.190976
2010-12-29  1.432707 -0.312652
2010-12-30 -0.720589  0.887163
2010-12-31  0.859588 -0.636524
2011-01-01  0.015696 -2.242685
In [11]:
price     0.411768
weight   -0.699135
dtype: float64

Other Useful Statistics Libraries

  • scikit-learn — machine learning in Python (sponsored by Google, among others)

  • pyMC — for Bayesian data analysis

Networks and Graphs

Python has many libraries for studying graphs

One well-known example is NetworkX

  • Standard graph algorithms for analyzing network structure, etc.
  • Plotting routines
  • etc., etc.

Here’s some example code that generates and plots a random graph, with node color determined by shortest path length from a central node

In [12]:
import networkx as nx
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
%matplotlib inline

# Generate random graph
p = dict((i,(np.random.uniform(0, 1),np.random.uniform(0, 1))) for i in range(200))
G = nx.random_geometric_graph(200, 0.12, pos=p)
pos = nx.get_node_attributes(G, 'pos')

# find node nearest the center point (0.5, 0.5)
dists = [(x - 0.5)**2 + (y - 0.5)**2 for x, y in list(pos.values())]
ncenter = np.argmin(dists)

# Plot graph, coloring by path length from central node
p = nx.single_source_shortest_path_length(G, ncenter)
nx.draw_networkx_edges(G, pos, alpha=0.4)
                       node_size=120, alpha=0.5,

Cloud Computing

Running your Python code on massive servers in the cloud is becoming easier and easier

A nice example is Anaconda Enterprise

See also

Parallel Processing

Apart from the cloud computing options listed above, you might like to consider

Other Developments

There are many other interesting developments with scientific programming in Python

Some representative examples include

  • Jupyter — Python in your browser with code cells, embedded images, etc.

  • Numba — Make Python run at the same speed as native machine code!

  • Blaze — a generalization of NumPy

  • CVXPY — convex optimization in Python

Learn More