# Addition and subtraction of two floats in Python

Yesterday I was wondering how floats are handled in a computer and what they look like in binary... I learnt about the single-precision floating-point and I tried to see the limit of that format...

I first wrote this little Python (3.4) script

a,b = 1,1

while (a+b)-a-b == 0:
a*=2.0

while (a+b)-a-b != 0:
b+=1.0

print(a,b)


I wanted to see what specific exponent value of a could be create a lack of precision in the result (a+b)-a-b, and if increasing the value of b could correct it.

The output was :

9007199254740992.0 2.0


I noticed that 2^53 = 9007199254740992.0 and I though it was a bit disturbing : the binary representation of 53 is 110101, and this really doesn't look like any specific value...

The "2.0" let me a little less sceptical, as you just have to add 1 to increase the exponent value of b. It made more sense, but I realised I couldn't explain it properly too.

I modified my script to see the actual binary value of everything I was doing :

import struct

def binary(f):
return str(bin(struct.unpack('!i',struct.pack('!f',f)))).replace('0b', '')

def status(a,b):
return binary(a),binary(b),binary(a+b),binary(-a),binary(-b),binary(-a-b),binary((a+b)-a-b)

a,b = 1,1

while (a+b)-a-b == 0:
a*=2.0
print(status(a,b))

print("\n")

while (a+b)-a-b != 0:
b+=1.0
print(status(a,b))

print(a,b)


But what I saw didn't help me. I can't figure out why the lack of precision happens at that specific value of a, and why increasing b just once would correct it.

Could anyone help me understanding this ?

(I apologize in advance for my really poor English)

• It might be insightful to play with floating point numbers that use less bits such as binary16 (half-precision) where you could see what each bit in a number does and enumerate all possible numbers easily. – jfs Feb 27 '16 at 11:49

$(-1)^s \left(1+\sum_{i=1}^{52}\frac{b_{52-i}}{2^i}\right)\times 2^{e-1023}$
where $s$ is 0 or 1 (1 bit), $e$ is an 11 bit number and the $b_i$s fill the remaining bits. This indeed has a maximum value with integer stride of $2^{53}$ = 9007199254740992.0. After this value, the numbers which can be modelled start to increase by 2 each time, and the addition of 1.0 (i.e. b) underflows. On the other hand, you can still add 2.0 just fine.
• 1- Python supports IEEE-754 platforms and some functions may even rely on IEEE-754 e.g., math.fsum() but Python doesn't guarantee IEEE-754 semantics on some platforms. 2- it might be worth mentioning subnormal values and nan, inf (a single formula in the answer doesn't apply to some f.p. numbers). – jfs Feb 27 '16 at 11:26