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Scientific Programming with Python

Part 1: The Earth’s Gravity


Current: The Earth’s Gravity

Next: Newton’s Laws of Motion

Python is a freely distributable high-level computer programming language that has become very popular for everything from scripting applications and web-page generation to solving scientific problems.

Python shares many basic characteristics with languages like Mathematica, Matlab, and Labview, and has an extensive set of numerical and scientific modules.

Python has several freely distributable add-ons available that help make it more general. These include NumPy (Numerical Python) and SciPy that allow you to solve complex scientific problems in an efficient manner, and matplotlib to plot data fairly nicely.

This course will focus on analyzing natural and social science problems, introducing just enough Python to implement them.


Getting Started

We will use versions 2.7 and 3.6 of Python; in 2018 the former is becoming a “legacy” version, while the latter is being used for most new development.

Version 3 is different enough from earlier versions that there are still many extras that have not been updated, but it will be the primary version we use, with 2.7 for a special case or two.

You will often want to review some of the online resources provided by the Python community:

A number of important add-ons or packages work with both of these versions of Python:

  • NumPy makes it significantly easier to work with numerical arrays, and is essential for scientific/mathematical projects.
  • SciPy provides a number of scientific tools such as numerical integration.
  • Matplotlib is a 2-D plotting package.
  • Spyder is an interactive development environment (IDE) for Python with a number of useful features that make it easier to develop code.
  • IPython is a documentation tool for Python (and some other languages) that allows one to intermix code with text explanations.

The home web sites of these technologies are linked above, providing their specifications, full documentation, and more general tutorials.

These technologies together with a few others are known as the SciPy Stack.

The Stack and a number of other useful add-ons can be easily installed via the Anaconda distribution.

You might also find this summary useful:

This course will get you started but will only be a taste of possibilities, so if you want to learn more, these are good books:


In the summer of 2018, Python 2.7 and 3.6 are available in all of the Amherst College computing labs, both separately and as part of the Anaconda distribution, on both Macs and Windows.

For your own computer you can install these items individually, but the Anaconda distribution is recommended.

If you do choose to install them individually:

  1. You’ll want to first install Python (if it isn’t already there).
    1. If you have your own Windows computer, you will need to install Python yourself.
    2. If you have your own Macintosh computer, Python is already installed, but it may be older than you want; macOS 10.7 – 10.12 come with version 2.7, while macOS 10.6 has version 2.6.
  2. If you are running a version of Python 2 before 2.7.9 or Python 3 before 3.4, download the python package installer pip. To install pip, launch the Mac Terminal or Windows cmd and run the command python (ideally as an administrator so that it’s generally available). Then you can install the other packages, e.g. pip install numpy (again as administrator, if possible). If you don’t know what this means, you probably want to use Anaconda instead (which also include pip, which is still sometimes necessary).

Integrated Development Environments

Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) are extremely useful tools for programming, providing syntax coloring and checking, debugging capabilities, and more.

Python comes preinstalled with an IDE called IDLE (can you guess why?), but we will instead use Spyder, which has many more features and in some ways is easier to use.

There are many other Python IDEs available, see this fairly comprehensive list.

You can also just use any good programmer’s text editor (TextWrangler for Mac, Notepad++ for Windows, Emacs, VIM, etc.) and run Python from a built-in command line interpreter (on Macintosh menu Go> Utilities and then open Terminal; on Windows menu Start and type cmd).

On Amherst College Windows computers, several versions of Python are installed, so you can launch Spyder by, for example, menuing Start > Anaconda3(64-bit) > Spyder.

On Macs, Spyder is buried in the folder /Applications/anaconda/bin; locate spyder (or IPython, etc.), and drag it to the dock — but put it in the documents section at the end. Then you’ll have easy access to it, and when you click on it Mac OS X will launch a shell that runs it, and it will appear in the applications section, so that you can bring the running application forward by clicking on it.

In either case, a window should open that provides a set of panes and toolbars that let you interact with Python:

The Spyder IDE

The panes include:

  • the IPython console, where you can try out various Python statements to see their effect;
  • the Editor, where you can edit files that contain Python statements, and then run them to see their output in the console;
  • the File explorer, which displays the locations of your Python files for easy access;
  • the Variable explorer, which provides information about Python variables and their values;
  • the History log, which maintains a list of previously executed Python statements.

By default there are three visible panes, sometimes with buttons that let you switch between multiple overlapping panes.

Panes can be “popped out” by clicking on the button Pane Pop-Out, and then moved around into a new location or to overlap another pane.

Other panes providing additional information can be added via the menu View > Panes. If you accidentally close a pane, you can reopen it here, too.

The toolbars include:

  • The File toolbar, with the usual buttons  New,  Open, and  Save to select a file to work on in the Editor;
  • The Run toolbar, which lets you evaluate the Python statements in the file currently open in the Editor by clicking on the button  Run;
  • The Global working directory toolbar, which lets you select the working directory that appears in the File explorer by clicking on the button  Browse a Working Directory.

    Note: A directory is the same thing as a folder.

Other toolbars providing additional functionality can be added via the menu View > Toolbars.

The Acceleration of Gravity

Programming languages let you represent mathematical expressions with relative ease.

A Scientific Calculator

Consider the basic law of gravitational acceleration near the Earth’s surface, which applies if you throw a ball up into the air:

y = y0 + vy0t - ½ gt2

Here y0 is the initial height, vy0 is the initial speed in the vertical direction, g = 9.81 m/s2 is the acceleration of gravity, and t is time.

At its most basic, Python will act like a scientific calculator and let you calculate the result of this equation by typing in particular values for these symbols and using the standard mathematical operators:

+ addition                  - subtraction

* multiplication         / division

** exponentiation

Using y0 = 2 m, vy0 = 15 m/s, and t = 3 s, type the following expression into the IPython console at the prompt In [1]:, and then evaluate it by typing the character <return>/<enter>:

2 + 15 * 3 - 1/2 * 9.81 * 3**2

⇒ 2.8549999999999969

The second line, the value of the expression, will appear in the console window.

There are several things to be aware of here:

  • Like a calculator, you need to make sure your units match up. Since the gravitational constant is 9.81 m/s2, 2 must be in meters, 3 in seconds, and 15 in m/s — but the units themselves aren’t actually typed into Python.
  • The operators have different precedences, so that exponentiation will be applied before multiplication and division, which will be evaluated before addition and subtraction.

    If you want to change this order, you need to place parentheses () around the lower-precedence operation, e.g. (2 + 15)*3.

    A complete list of operator precedence can be found here.
  • Within the precedence levels of addition/subtraction and multiplication/division, operations are applied left-to-right.

    Therefore, 1/2*9.81 is calculated exactly the same as (1/2)*9.81, while 1/(2*9.81) will produce a different value.
  • Exponentiation, on the other hand, is applied right-to-left:
  • 2**3**2

    ⇒ 512


    ⇒ 64

Try this!

Computer Numbers

Python distinguishes between integer and floating point (real) values, which you can tell apart by the presence or absence of a decimal point, e.g. 1 and 1.0 are different types of data and are stored by the computer in different ways.

You can write real values in scientific notation using the letter e to represent the ×10 (there should be no space around it):


⇒ 0.002

This representation of real numbers should tell you where the name “floating point” comes from; we could just as easily represent this number as 0.2e-2 or 20e-4. In fact, this is how these values are stored in memory on a computer, as a pair of integers, the mantissa and the exponent.

Computer memory is structured as a set of binary digits or bits, which each have the value 0 or 1.

Bits are generally grouped in units of eight called bytes, e.g. 01110011, which form base-2 numbers that range from 0 to 28 – 1 = 255.

Often the eighth (left-most) bit of a byte is used as a sign bit, in which case the values range from –128 to 127:

Binary Unsigned Decimal Signed Decimal
00000000 0 0
00000001 1 1
00000010 2 2
00000011 3 3
00000100 4 4
00001000 8 8
01000000 64 64
01111111 127 127
10000000 128 –128
11111111 255 –1

Integers are defined by grouping together 1, 2, or 4 bytes, depending on the range of values desired, and interpreting them as binary numbers, as above.

Floating-point values are defined by grouping together 4 or 8 bytes, commonly called single and double precision, respectively. The available bits are split between the mantissa and exponent and their signs, 24 + 6 + 2 and 53 + 9 + 2, respectively.

Common Computer Numeric Data Types

Data Type Size Minimum Value Maximum Value Approximate Digits of Precision
Unsigned Integer 8 bit = 1 byte 0 255 3
16 bit = 2 bytes 0 65535 5
32 bit = 4 bytes 0 4294967295 10
Signed Integer 8 bit = 1 byte −128 127 3
16 bit = 2 bytes −32,768 32,767 5
32 bit = 4 bytes −2,147,483,648 2,147,483,647 10
Floating Point 32 bit = 4 bytes −3.4 x 1038 1.2 x 1038 7
64 bit = 8 bytes −2.2 x 10308 1.8 x 10308 16

The size of Python integer and floating-point values are, by default, determined by the operating system.

On newer computers (i.e. with 64-bit hardware that can transfer 8 bytes of data at once), ints are 4-byte signed, while floats are double precision.

You can tell the floating-point precision by the number of digits that Python prints out for values like 2.8549999999999969, showing all the available precision (keep in mind, though, that if the input data isn’t this precise the output won’t be, either!).

When describing data sizes, keep in mind that numbers like 1, 2, 4, and 8 will usually refer to bytes, while numbers like 8, 16, 32, and 64 will usually refer to bits.

You can explicitly force conversion of an integer to a real value with the built-in constructor float():


⇒ 1.0

Try this!

Or go the opposite direction with the constructor int(), which truncates the fractional part of a real number:


⇒ 9

Try this!

Warning: In Python version 3, when you divide two integers, the result will be a float if there is a fractional part:

1/2 ⇒ 0.5

But in versions 1 and 2, the result is an integer so any fractional part will be truncated, e.g.

1/2 ⇒ 0

To force truncation in any version, you can use the integer division operator //:

1//2 ⇒ 0


Just as in mathematics, assigning literal values to variables will allow you to remember their purpose and make use of them more easily.

Python lets you use variable names of any length, though they must start with a letter and afterward can contain letters, numbers, and the underscore (_). Be aware that variable names are case-sensitive, i.e. y is not the same as Y.

If you follow variables with an = sign and any value or expression such as the above, they will be assigned that value and have that type:

y0 = 2
vy0 = 15
g = 9.81
t = 3
y = y0 + vy0 * t - 1/2 * g * t**2

⇒ 2.8549999999999969

Try this!

Note how similar the last expression is now to the way we write the law of gravity in scientific texts.

(Also note that IPython doesn’t print out the values of assignments, only single variables or expressions.)

Python variables are dynamically typed, so you can redefine a variable at will, e.g. vy0 is an integer above but becomes a float with:

vy0 = 15.0

We can check the type of a variable with one of Python’s built-in functions:


⇒ int


⇒ float

Try this!

A generally useful rule: if you will use the result of a calculation more than once, it’s usually a good idea to first assign it to a variable.


It would be useful to be able to repeat the calculation of position in Earth’s gravity for many different times without having to type out the whole expression repeatedly.

We can achieve this by packaging the statement above inside our own function definition statement:

def y(t):
    return y0 + vy0 * t - 1./2 * g * t**2


⇒ 1.3629499999999908

Try this!

There are several things to be aware of here:

  • The colon (:) is required to terminate the initial statement;
  • All subsequent statements that are calculated as part of the function must be indented by a standard amount (4 spaces = 1 tab);
  • When typing this into IPython, it will automatically indent after it sees the colon, and at the very end you need to type an extra <return>/<enter> to leave the indented level and evaluate the function definition;
  • The function is aware of the earlier assignments to y0, vy0, and g, which are known as global variables;
  • When the function is called with the value 3.1 in place of the argument t, the latter is replaced by the calling value everywhere it occurs inside the function, and the previous global assignment t = 3 is ignored;
  • The value of the function call y(t) is the value of the expression in the return statement.
  • Function calls can be used anywhere a number or variable can be used.
  • The reserved words def and return have special meaning for Python, and are examples of several that must not be used for variable names.

    Here is a complete list of Python’s reserved words.

We can generalize this function by including multiple arguments in the definition, and we can also make g a local variable :

def y(t, y0, vy0):
    g = 9.81
    return y0 + vy0 * t - 1./2 * g * t**2

y(3.1, 2, 16)

⇒ 4.462949999999992

Try this!

Just like the function arguments, when g is defined as a local variable inside the function it will supercede any declarations outside of the function, which are known as global variables.

Local and global variables have different scopes or namespaces, and therefore are independent of each other.

Using local variables helps keep your definitions in one place and ensure they aren’t accidentally overwritten, which will make your code easier to debug.

The acceleration of gravity far from the Earth depends on distance r from the center of the Earth:

g(r) = GM/r2

Here G is the Universal Constant of Gravitation and M is the mass of the Earth:

G = 6.673 × 10-11 m3/(kg•s2)

M = 5.972 × 1024 kg

Write a function of r that calculates the acceleration of gravity, and use it at 1, 2, and 3 times the Earth’s radius:

R = 6.378 × 106 m

How do these values compare to the value previous asserted for g at the surface of the Earth? Does their behavior match what you know about gravity?

The acceleration of gravity at the surface of the Earth depends on its radius R:

g(r) = GM/R2

Here G is the Universal Constant of Gravitation:

G = 6.673 × 10-11 m3/(kg•s2)

and M is the mass of the Earth. But this equation actually applies to any spherical object with a surface, not just the Earth.

Write a function that calculates the acceleration of gravity on any planet or moon, given its mass and diameter. Using your function, calculate gravity’s value for the first five worlds in this table. How do these values compare to the value previous asserted for g at the surface of the Earth?

Vector PositionVectorially Speaking

Motion in a gravitational field is not always up and down, and if you give a ball an initial horizontal velocity, it will also move in that direction:

x = x0 + vx0t

y = y0 + vy0t - ½ gt2

So it’s frequently important to calculate the vector position of an object, often represented with unit vectors along the x- and y-axes as x î + y ĵ , but which can be written more simply as a pair of values (x, y).

Python recognizes a similar sequence of values called a tuple, which is simply two or more values separated by commas:

0, 2

⇒ (0, 2)

Try this!

Tuple commas have a very low precedence, meaning most calculations between commas happen first and grouping into a tuple happens last:

1+1, 5-4, 7*2

⇒ (2, 1, 14)

Try this!

Parentheses around tuples are usually optional on input, but are sometimes necessary to remove ambiguity, e.g. commas are also used in function argument lists, so if an argument is itself a tuple, parentheses are required.

We can generalize the function above by using tuples as vectors and including the equation for x:

def xy(t, xy0, v0):
    g = 9.81
    (x0,y0) = xy0
    (vx0,vy0)= v0
    return x0 + vx0 * t, y0 + vy0 * t - 1./2 * g * t**2

xy(3, (0, 2), (0, 15))

⇒ (0, 2.854999999999997)

Try this!

Here tuples are passed both as input to the function but also returned as the output of the function.

The evaluation of the function above is a check, which reproduces the previous case in the y direction and also the expected value in the x direction. Another result might be:

xy0 = (0, 2)
v0 = (10,15)
xy(3, xy0, v0)

⇒ (30, 2.854999999999997)

Try this!

Once you have created a tuple, you cannot modify it; it’s immutable, like literal integers and floats.

Unlike vectors, tuples can’t be added or subtracted; the operator + is overloaded to produce the concatenation of tuples:

xy0 + v0

⇒ (0, 2, 10, 15)

Try this!

And vector scalar multiplication also doesn’t work; the operator * combining an integer (only) and a tuple is overloaded to produce the repetition of the tuple:

3 * v0

⇒ (10, 15, 10, 15, 10, 15)

Try this!

Tuples therefore have limited use as vectors, being primarily a compact notation for handling sequences of values. We will discuss more general vector analysis later.

To determine the length of a tuple, use the built-in function len():


⇒ 2

Try this!

To retrieve a particular value from a tuple, use the index operator [], which refers to the first element in the tuple or list by the index 0 and the last element by the index len() – 1:


⇒ 10


⇒ 15

Try this!

A somewhat simpler way to extract individual values from a short tuple is to assign it to a tuple of variables:

(x, y) = (0, 2)

⇒ 0

Try this!

We see above that tuples look like but don’t act like vectors:

(x, y) + (u, v)Concatenation: (x, y, u, v)Component Addition: (x + u, y + v)
(x, y) * sRepetition s times: (x, y, x, y, ...)Scalar Multiplication: (x * s, y * s)

Write a function that take two tuples of arbitrary length as arguments and treats them as vectors to produce their component addition, and a function that takes a tuple and a number as arguments and treats the former as a vector to produce scalar multiplication. Bonus: make the latter independent of order.

While You Throw the Ball

To find the full path of a ball thrown under the influence of gravity, we’ll want to calculate its position for more than just a few values of time.

The most general way to do this is with a while loop, which requires that we set an initial value of the time, a condition to test for the final value of time, and an expression or expressions that change the time between the two:

t = 0
while t < 4:
    print((t,) + xy(t, xy0, v0))
    t += 0.5

⇒ (0, 0, 2.0)
  (0.5, 5.0, 8.27375)
  (1.0, 10.0, 12.094999999999999)
  (1.5, 15.0, 13.46375)
  (2.0, 20.0, 12.379999999999999)
  (2.5, 25.0, 8.84375)
  (3.0, 30.0, 2.854999999999997)
  (3.5, 35.0, -5.58625)

Try this!

Note the same statement—colon—indented-block-of-statements structure that we saw for function definitions.

There are also a few other new things to see here:

  • There is a test t < 4 that uses the conditional operator < and returns a boolean value, either True or False, and when the latter occurs, the loop stops.

    Other comparison operators test for less than or equal to (<=), greater than (>), greater than or equal to (>=), equality (==), and inequality (!=).
  • The parameter t is converted to a one-element tuple with the notation (t,), which allows it to be concatenated with the tuple output by xy() to form a tuple of values (t, x, y).
  • The print() function is used inside of the loop to see the results, otherwise they are suppressed by IPython.
  • To increment the value of time for the next round of the loop, we use an assignment operator += , which takes the value on the right side and adds it to the variable on the left side.

    The result is equivalent to the statement t = t + 0.5, but more efficient.

Often you will want to collect these values in a variable rather than print them out, so you can work with them as a group, e.g. to plot them. One approach is to initialize an empty tuple and then concatenate subsequent results:

t = 0
trajectory = ()
while t < 4:
    trajectory += (t,)+ xy(t, xy0, v0),
    t += 0.5

⇒ ((0, 0, 2.0),
(0.5, 5.0, 8.27375),
(1.0, 10.0, 12.094999999999999),
(1.5, 15.0, 13.46375),
(2.0, 20.0, 12.379999999999999),
(2.5, 25.0, 8.84375),
(3.0, 30.0, 2.854999999999997),
(3.5, 35.0, -5.58625))

Try this!

Here the assignment operator += is also used to concatenate a tuple of values at the end of trajectory — but note the extra , at the end which makes the right-hand side a tuple of a tuple!

Question: what will you get if you leave off that extra comma?

Rewrite the above loop to avoid negative values of y instead of lasting for a certain length of time (because, of course, y = 0 is the ground!).

…For a Specific Range of Time

When you have a particular sequence of values that you want to iterate through, an alternative to the while loop is a for loop:

trajectory = ()
for t in range(8):
    t /= 2.
    trajectory += (t,)+ xy(t, xy0, v0),

⇒ ((0, 0, 2.0)
  (0.5, 5.0, 8.27375)
  (1.0, 10.0, 12.094999999999999)
  (1.5, 15.0, 13.46375)
  (2.0, 20.0, 12.379999999999999)
  (2.5, 25.0, 8.84375)
  (3.0, 30.0, 2.854999999999997)
  (3.5, 35.0, -5.58625))

Try this!

Again, there is the same statement—colon—indented-block-of-statements structure that we saw for function definitions and while statements.

The range() function takes a single argument, here 8, and represents a sequence of integer values starting from zero:

0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

These values are assigned in turn to t, and the following block of statements is evaluated.

Note this means we don’t need to increment the time ourselves, the for loop does it for us, which is generally more efficient.

Because the range() function can only produce integer values, we need to divide those values by 2 to generate steps of 0.5, as in the previous case of the while loop. We therefore use another assignment operator, t /= 2, which is equivalent to t = t / 2 but is more efficient.

More generally, the range() function can have an initial integer value (inclusive), a final integer value (exclusive), and an integer step value, so that the following produces the same sequence as above:


If the step value isn’t included, it’s assumed to be 1, so the following again produces the same sequence:


And if the initial value is also not included (as above), it’s assumed to be 0.

When you type in a range expressions by itself, the output looks more or less the same; this is because the range() function is a constructor of another type of sequence called, unsurprisingly, the range, which is distinct from the tuple (though it is also immutable):

rangeItems = range(-1,2)


Try this!

You can, however, convert from a range to a tuple with a constructor:


⇒ (-1, 0, 1)

Try this!

You can also use the index operator:


⇒ 1

Try this!

Warning: In versions 1 and 2 of Python, the range() function returned a more general type of sequence called a list!

…Unless You List Towards Lists

Sometimes you’ll want to work with a sequence of data that, unlike a tuple, can be modified, e.g. by changing individual elements, inserting other elements, etc.; for this purpose Python provides the list data type.

Like a tuple, a list is simply two or more values separated by commas, but in this case surrounded by square brackets:

[0, 2]

⇒ [0, 2]

Try this!

Like tuples and ranges, you can assign a list to a variable and reference individual items with the index operator:

listItems = [1, 5, 9]

⇒ 5

Try this!

So how is a list different than a tuple? The primary difference is that a list is mutable, i.e. it can be modified, and is therefore much more flexible. In particular, you can assign new values to individual items in a list by using index notation:

listItems[1] = 6

⇒ [1, 6, 9]

Try this!

Lists are a structure known as an object, which provide a number of useful methods (self-operating functions). Object attributes are referenced by appending them to the object with a period. For example, to insert a new value at index 2 (pushing later items to higher indices):

listItems.insert(2, 8)

⇒ [1, 6, 8, 9]

Try this!

Tuples and ranges can also be converted to lists with a constructor:


⇒ [0, 2]


⇒ [-1, 0, 1]

Try this!

The previous while loop can use a list instead of a tuple:

trajectory = []
for t in range(8):
    t /= 2.
    trajectory.append((t,)+ xy(t, xy0, v0))

⇒ [(0, 0, 2.0)
  (0.5, 5.0, 8.27375)
  (1.0, 10.0, 12.094999999999999)
  (1.5, 15.0, 13.46375)
  (2.0, 20.0, 12.379999999999999)
  (2.5, 25.0, 8.84375)
  (3.0, 30.0, 2.854999999999997)
  (3.5, 35.0, -5.58625)]

Try this!

This is less efficient than using tuples, however, since lists have more overhead.

There is also a compact alternative expression called a list comprehension, which has the same pieces as a for loop with a single statement, but is organized in a different way:

trajectory = [(t/2.,) + xy(t/2., xy0, v0) for t in range(8)]

List comprehensions are usually more efficient than for (and while) loops, because the iteration is handled by compiled code — unless you can use tuples to build the sequence.

List comprehensions are also expressions rather than statements like a for loop, so they can be used anywhere a number, variable, or function call can be used.

Speaking of Time

How do you know which of the above loops will be the fastest way to calculate these values? The timeit module provides the tools to test them:

import timeit

loop1 = """
t = 0
trajectory = ()
while t < 4:
    trajectory += ((t,)+ xy(t, xy0, v0)),
    t += 0.5

timeit.timeit(stmt=loop1, setup='from __main__ import xy0, v0, xy', number=100000)

⇒ 0.5816807200899348

The """ are a way to define a string of characters that crosses multiple lines, and is used to define the code that you want to run. (Note that all printing has been removed here, to focus on the looping.)

When imported, the module timeit becomes an object with its functions as methods, in particular timeit.timeit().

This particular function expression uses keyword arguments stmt, setup, and number, which can be placed in any position in the argument list, unlike the positional arguments we saw previously.

The parameter setup is used to ensure that predefined parameters are available when the code assigned to stmt is run.

The parameter number lets you choose the number of times to run the code; the larger the number, the less important system-related time should be in the total.

loop2 = """
trajectory = ()
for t in range(8):
    t /= 2.
    trajectory += (t,)+ xy(t, xy0, v0),

timeit.timeit(stmt=loop2, setup='from __main__ import xy0, v0, xy', number=100000)

⇒ 0.5703178539406508

And also:

loop3 = """
t = 0
trajectory = []
while t < 4:
    trajectory.append( (t,)+ xy(t, xy0, v0) )
    t += 0.5

timeit.timeit(stmt=loop3, setup='from __main__ import xy0, v0, xy', number=100000)

⇒ 0.6067627309821546

And finally:

loop4 = "trajectory = [(t/2.,) + xy(t/2., xy0, v0) for t in range(8)]"

timeit.timeit(stmt=loop4, setup='from __main__ import xy0, v0, xy', number=100000)

⇒ 0.6161218710476533

So the last approach is about as efficient as the previous case. But building a tuple is still the most efficient approach, due to their lower overhead.

Back Down to Earth: Working with Files

Writing groups of functions in separate files will allow you to access them when necessary, and reuse them in other programs.

Python Files

So far we’ve been ignoring the Editor window, which initially shows a default file named (if you happen to have another file open, click on the button  Newto start fresh).

We can use files such as this to store the Python statements that we write, and this will also make it easy to edit these statements for bug fixes or improvements.

Initially this temporary file contains a bit of text inside of triple-double quotes """, describing something about the file’s contents, which for most purposes Python will ignore. Let’s update this text to read:

A Study of the Utmost Gravity

A set of functions to calculate the effects of gravity.

We have also written a fair bit of Python code in IPython. Let’s add some of it to this file, in particular:

def xy(t, xy0, v0):
    g = 9.81
    (x0,y0) = xy0
    (vx0,vy0)= v0
    return x0 + vx0 * t, y0 + vy0 * t - 1./2 * g * t**2

xy0 = (0, 2)
v0 = (10, 15)

trajectory = [(t/2.,) + xy(t/2., xy0, v0) for t in range(8)]


Important: You’ll also need to include the function print in a file to see any particular results (unlike in the IPython console).

When putting code into a Python file, it’s a good idea to save it periodically, and in general before you run it (since this can sometimes crash Spyder).

Procedure 1: Saving a Python File

To preserve your code for future use and for ease of editing, it’s best to save it in a folder where it can be easily found and run when you return to the computer:

  1. Menu File > Save as…
  2. Navigate to a good location to store it, such as your U: drive;
  3. Create a new folder;
  4. Give the file a name, e.g. ;
  5. Click the button Save.

Finally, to execute the code in the current file, click the toolbar button  Run file. The file will be loaded directly into IPython as if you had typed its statements there, and any output will also appear there.

The result of the print() command will appear in the IPython console, along with any error messages.

The file extension .py is recognized by many programs to be a particular kind of file called containing Python statements, and if you double-click on it, it may be run as an application rather than being opened again by Spyder.

Spyder’s File Explorer is therefore a better way to access your Python files, because it will always open .py files in Spyder.

If you click on the button File explorer, you will see Spyder’s current working directory (folder), which initially will be the folder Documents/Python Scripts.

Procedure 2: Remembering a Python File’s Folder

You will often be working on multiple projects in different folders, and Spyder can remember them for easy access in its menu of working directories, in the toolbar Global working directory, by default placed at the top right of Spyder’s window:

Menu of Working Directories

To add the current file’s location to this menu:

  1. In the upper right corner of the Editor window, click on the button  Options;
  2. Choose the item  Set console working directory;
  3. The folder path should now appear in the working directory menu, and the File Explorer should also display that folder and its files.

Python Modules

In addition to running a file directly, you can also load the file in IPython (and even other files or modules) with the statement:

import gravity

Note that the file extension .py is not used here.

This is the same command used for the Python-supplied module timeit in the previous section; Python searches through a number of predefined folders to find modules you reference.

Warning: This only works for your own modules if you have already established the location of this file as the working directory. This is why it’s good practice to keep all of your files together in the same folder.

An alternative to the above statement lets you choose a shortened name:

import gravity as g

When you import the file, any functions and variables you’ve defined therein become available for use — but you must reference them as attributes of the gravity or g object (depending on how you imported it). For example,


⇒ (0, 2)


⇒ <function gravity.xy>

g.xy(3, g.xy0, g.v0)

⇒ (30, 2.854999999999997)

We’ve seen object methods such as g.xy previously; g.xy0 and g.v0 are known as object properties.

If you want to import these methods and properties directly, so that you don’t need to include a prefix such as g., you can use the statement

from gravity import xy


from gravity import *

to important everything.

The names of imported attributes become part of the name space of your program, so be certain that you aren’t already using them for something else, as those earlier definitions will be wiped out.

Documenting Your Code

Once you start writing a fair amount of Python code, you will want to include comments to help you understand your intentions! Otherwise you will return weeks or months later and not know what you did, and it will also make it easier for others to use your code.

Python begins comments with a hash character # and continues to the end of the line:

# Split vectors into their components:
(x0,y0) = xy0

A special kind of comment called a docstring can be placed at the very beginning of a module or a function. Simply make the first line of the module or function a good description of its purpose, and surround it by single, double, or “triple double” quotes. For example, your file has this string as its first few lines:

A Study of the Utmost Gravity

A set of functions to calculate the effects of gravity.

This text can then be referenced with the module property__doc__:


⇒ '\nA Study of the Utmost Gravity\n\nA set of functions to calculate the effects of gravity.\n'

The print() function often provides a better display of such text, by, for example, implementing the newline character \n:


A Study of the Utmost Gravity

A set of functions to calculate the effects of gravity.

You could also add the following docstring to your file:

def xy(t, xy0, v0):
    """This function calculates the trajectory of an object
    under the influence of Earth's gravity near its surface:

        xy(t, (x0,y0), (vx0,vy0))

    where xy, x0, and y0 are in meters and vx0 and vy0 are in meters/second."""

If the module or this function is imported, this description will be available for users:

from gravity import xy


"This function calculates the trajectory of an object\n under the influence of Earth's gravity near its surface:\n\n xy(t, (x0,y0), (vx0,vy0))\n\n where xy, x0, and y0 are in meters and vx0 and vy0 are in meters/second."

Spyder also provides a quick reference for objects you’ve defined, e.g. if you click on the name of an object such as


and then type <ctrl>-I (Windows) or <command>-I (Mac), its definition and docstring will appear in the window Object Inspector:

Object Inspector Window

Character Strings

The docstring above is an example of a character string, a sequence of text surrounded by either single, double, or “triple double” quotes that can be manipulated by Python.

Character strings are commonly used to share data between programs and people, since they are more understandable than binary data, but also between programs because it’s a widely understood format.

When printing data such as the trajectory above, it’s also a good idea to format it with headers and perhaps provide other contextual information about the data.

Python provides the character string data type, str, to help make its output more human-understandable:

'This is the trajectory of a ball thrown into the air.'
"It's certain to come back down."

There is no difference between using two single or two double quotes, but they allow you to embed the other character within them, as with the second line above.

Strings surrounded by triple double quotes have the advantage that they can cross multiple lines, as in the docstring above.

Like the tuple and list sequences, strings can be concatenated with the operator +:

'# This is the trajectory of a ball thrown into the air.' + \
      " It's certain to come back down."

Note the continuation character \ that allows this statement to continue onto the next line.

Also like tuples and lists, strings can be assigned to variables:

intro = '# This is the trajectory of a ball thrown into the air.' + \
        " It's certain to come back down."


⇒ # This is the trajectory of a ball thrown into the air. It's certain to come back down.

Like other sequences, you can reference individual characters in a string with the index operator:


⇒ 'T'

However, like tuples and ranges, strings are immutable, so you can’t change them with index assignment (as you can for lists).

String Formatting

You may have noticed that when printing the trajectory information, it doesn’t come out very easy-to-read:


⇒ [(0, 0, 2.0), (0.5, 5.0, 8.2737499999999997), (1.0, 10.0, 12.094999999999999), (1.5, 15.0, 13.463749999999999), (2.0, 20.0, 12.379999999999999), (2.5, 25.0, 8.84375), (3.0, 30.0, 2.8549999999999969), (3.5, 35.0, -5.5862499999999997)]

To make this look much nicer, we can use the string formatting operator % which combines a string and a tuple as follows:

initialvalues = '# The ball has initial position (%f, %f) m and initial velocity (%f, %f) m/s.'
initialvalues % (xy0 + v0)

⇒ # The ball has initial position (0.000000, 2.000000) m and initial velocity (10.000000, 15.000000) m/s.

The trailing tuple here is xy0 + v0 (0, 2, 10, 15), the concatenation of which is enclosed in parentheses because the % operator has a higher precedence.

The leading string has formatting codes %f for floating point numbers, which are replaced in sequence by the values in the trailing tuple, four in each case.

We can shorten the numeric output by using the formatting code %0.2f, which indicates that only 2 digits of precision (after the decimal point) should be printed:

initialvalues = '# The ball has initial position (%0.2f, %0.2f) m and initial velocity (%0.2f, %0.2f) m/s.'
initialvalues % (xy0 + v0)

⇒ # The ball has initial position (0.00, 2.00) m and initial velocity (10.00, 15.00) m/s.

The 0 in %0.2f indicates a dynamic field width, but we can also specify a particular field width such as %5.2f, which will be left-padded with spaces if necessary to fill five positions. This can be used to construct an easy-to-read table for the trajectory data:

tableheader = ' t(s)  x(m)  y(m)'
tabledata = '%5.2f %5.2f %5.2f'
for position in trajectory:
    print(tabledata % position)

t(s)   x(m)   y(m)
0.00   0.00   2.00
0.50   5.00   8.27
1.00  10.00  12.09
1.50  15.00  13.46
2.00  20.00  12.38
2.50  25.00   8.84
3.00  30.00   2.85
3.50  35.00  -5.59

There are a number of other formatting codes, including %e for scientific notation, %i for integer values, and %s for strings (to be embedded within the formatting string). The sequence %% represents a single % in the leading string.

See this documentation on string formatting options for more information.

Data Output and Input

Rather than writing the pretty table above to the screen, we can also open a file for writing and save it there.

First we must open the file for writing :

output = open('trajectory.txt', 'w')

This statement assumes the file will be in the current folder (directory), which should be the same place from where you opened your file

This statement will also delete any existing content in the file if it already exists; if you want to append data to an existing file, the second argument should instead be 'a'.

The result of the open() command is a file handler we’ve called output, whose methods allow us to output data to the file.

We can make use of the same strings as above:

output.write(intro + '\n')
output.write(initialvalues % (xy0 + v0) + '\n\n')
output.write(tableheader + '\n')
for position in trajectory:
    output.write(tabledata % position + '\n')

But note the two differences from the print statement:

  • We are using the method output.write() instead;
  • We must explicitly append a newline character '\n' at the end of each string to start new lines.

Finally, we must close the file:


To read the file back in again:

input = open('trajectory.txt', 'r')
data =

# This is the trajectory of a ball thrown into the air. It's certain to come back down.
# The ball has initial position (0.00, 2.00) m and initial velocity (10.00, 15.00) m/s.

t(s)   x(m)   y(m)
0.00   0.00   2.00
0.50   5.00   8.27
1.00  10.00  12.09
1.50  15.00  13.46
2.00  20.00  12.38
2.50  25.00   8.84
3.00  30.00   2.85
3.50  35.00  -5.59 


Question: if you simply type the name of the variable data to display it, how does its output differ from using the print statement?

String Parsing

Note that the input data is a single string — if this were actual data you would want to read it in line-by-line so that you could parse it back into its component parts (viz. header and rows):

input = open('trajectory.txt', 'r')
data = input.readlines()

["# This is the trajectory of a ball thrown into the air. It's certain to come back down. \n", '# The ball has initial position (4.00, 2.00) m and initial velocity (10.00, 15.00) m/s.\n', '#\n', '#t(s) x(m) y(m)\n', '0.00 0.00 2.00\n', '0.50 5.00 8.27\n', '1.00 10.00 12.09\n', '1.50 15.00 13.46\n', '2.00 20.00 12.38\n', '2.50 25.00 8.84\n', '3.00 30.00 2.85\n', '3.50 35.00 -5.59']


The actual data begins in the fifth element of the list, which has index 4, so we can process it beginning there:

trajectory = []
for line in data[4:]:
    trajectory.append(tuple(map(float, line.split())))

[(0.0, 4.0, 2.0), (0.5, 9.0, 8.27), (1.0, 14.0, 12.09), (1.5, 19.0, 13.46), (2.0, 24.0, 12.38), (2.5, 29.0, 8.84), (3.0, 34.0, 2.85), (3.5, 39.0, -5.59)]

Again, there’s a lot going on here:

  • The index notation [n:m], known as a slice, lets you pick out any set of values from a sequence, from element [n] to
    element [m-1]— yes, the first index is inclusive while the second is exclusive (!).
  • If you leave out the second index in a slice, e.g. [n:], it continues to the end of the list,
    and if you leave out the first index, e.g. [:m], it starts from the beginning.
  • The string method .split() will split its string at intervening spaces, producing a list of three separate strings:

    ' 0.00 0.00 2.00\n'['0.00', '0.00', '2.00']
  • The function map() will apply its first argument, the function float(), to each element of its second argument, a list:

    ['0.00', '0.00', '2.00'][0.0, 0.0, 2.0]

    The result is another type of sequence called an iterator, which is converted to a tuple with the function tuple().

Here is a complete list of methods available for working on strings.

How would you go about extracting the initial values from data[1]?

'# The ball has initial position (0.00, 2.00) m and initial velocity (10.00, 15.00) m/s.\n'

Hint: strings have a .find() method!

Natural Arrays

Data describing Nature are often best stored in arrays, rectangular (or higher-dimensional) collections of values, and NumPy makes it much easier to work with them.

NumPy Arrays

Remember our previous data set describing the motion of a ball thrown into the air near the Earth’s surface:

tableheader = '  t(s) x(m) y(m)'
tabledata = '%5.2f %5.2f %5.2f'
for position in trajectory:
    print(tabledata % position)

t(s)   x(m)   y(m)
0.00   0.00   2.00
0.50   5.00   8.27
1.00  10.00  12.09
1.50  15.00  13.46
2.00  20.00  12.38
2.50  25.00   8.84
3.00  30.00   2.85
3.50  35.00  -5.59

which is a nice way of displaying trajectory, a list of tuples in the format (t, x, y):


⇒ [(0, 0, 2.0), (0.5, 5.0, 8.2737499999999997), (1.0, 10.0, 12.094999999999999), (1.5, 15.0, 13.463749999999999), (2.0, 20.0, 12.379999999999999), (2.5, 25.0, 8.84375), (3.0, 30.0, 2.8549999999999969), (3.5, 35.0, -5.5862499999999997)]

We would like to be able to plot, two-dimensionally, the data pairs (t, x), (t, y), and (x, y). Unfortunately, Python by itself doesn’t provide good tools for extracting “columns” from lists of lists; you might try syntax that youv’e seen in other languages, such as


to select the second column, where [:]should mean to select all of the rows, but this won’t get you what you want; the first will produce an error and the second will produce the second row instead!

The only choice you have is to iterate through each row and compile the individual elements, but that’s very inefficient.

Fortunately, Python is very general and can be used to build better data types than the lowly list, and the add-on NumPy takes advantage of these features to provide a better data type, the array.

First, though, we must import Numpy:

import numpy as np

Including the as np phrase allows us to refer to the functions imported as np.method() rather than numpy.method().

With this large toolbox in hand, we can then convert trajectory to an array as follows:

ntra = np.array(trajectory)

And it is now possible to use the first notation above to select the columns we want, e.g. :


⇒ array([ 0., 5., 10., 15., 20., 25., 30., 35.])

We can also select multiple columns:


array([[ 0., 2. ]
[ 5., 8.27]
[ 10., 12.09 ]
[ 15., 13.46]
[ 20., 12.38 ]
[ 25., 8.84]
[ 30., 2.85 ]
[ 35., -5.59]])

Remember one of Python’s oddities: the sequence slice 1:3 means elements 1 and 2, because the second index in a slice is exclusive.

Plotting Arrays

Now that we’ve extracted the data pairs we want, we can plot them using the add-on matplotlib.

Because matplotlib generally requires several statements to build a plot, we will want to write them in a .py file while we perfect them.

But because we will be producing interactive plots, it’s a good idea to embed the plotting commands in a function that we can call from the Python shell after loading our .py file:

def xyplot():
    'This function plots the trajectory of a ball in a gravitional field.'
    from matplotlib.pyplot import plot, title, xlabel, ylabel, show, close
    title('Trajectory of a Ball through the Air.')

Here we see a variation of the import command that loads just the particular functions we need from matplotlib. It also avoids the use of a prefix such as np.method(), since any name conflicts will only occur inside the function, where we’ll have tighter control over them.

The plot is built up from multiple pieces: the actual plot itself, the title, and the x- and y-axis labels. Only after these have been “constructed” do we show() the plot, which produces a pop-up window with the figure displayed:


If the figure is satisfactory, you can save it by right-clicking on it, and in the contextual menu that appears select the item Save Image As….

A list of plotting commands can be found in the Matplotlib documentation.


Scientific Programming with Python:
Gravity Near the Earth’s Surface

Newton’s Laws of Motion

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