Python Built-in Types and Operations

Python supports a number of built-in types and operations. This tutorial covers the most common types, but information about additional types is available here.

Basic numeric types

The basic data numeric types are similar to those found in other languages, including:

  • Integers (int):

    >>> i = 1
  • Floating point values (float):

    >>> f = 4.3
  • Complex values (complex):

    >>> c = complex(4., -1.)

Manipulating these behaves the way you would expect, so an operation (+, -, /, *, **, etc.) on two values of the same type produces another value of the same type, while an operation on two values with different types produces a value of the more ‘advanced’ type:

  • Adding two integers gives an integer:

    >>> 1 + 3
  • Multiplying two floats gives a float:

    >>> 3. * 2.
  • Subtracting two complex numbers gives a complex number:

    >>> complex(2.,4.) - complex(1.,6.)
  • Multiplying an integer with a float gives a float:

    >>> 3 * 9.2
    27.599999999999998  # int * float = float
  • Multiplying a float with a complex number gives a complex number:

    >>> 2. * complex(-1.,3.)
    (-2+6j)  # float * complex = complex
  • Multiplying an integer and a complex number gives a complex number:

    >>> 8 * complex(-3.3,1)
    (-26.4+8j)  # int * complex = complex

However, there is one case in Python 2 where this happens but is not desirable, and that you should be aware of, which is the division of two integer numbers:

>>> 3 / 2

This is behavior is widely regarded as a huge design mistake and Python 3.x has been fixed to behave like you would expect. To see how Python 3.x behaves, we can use:

>>> from __future__ import division

After typing this, we can use the Python 3.x syntax:

>>> 3 / 2

>>> 3 // 2

If you are writing new code in Python 2 then it’s a fine idea to start each file with from __future__ import division at the top.

Another way to prevent this is to cast at least one of the integers in the division to a float:

>>> 3 / float(2)

Lists, tuples, and sets

There are two types of sequences that appear similar at first glance, both of which can contain inhomogeneous data types:

  • Lists (list):

    >>> l = [4, 5.5, "spam"]
    >>> l[0]
    >>> l[1]
    >>> l[2]
  • Tuples (tuple):

    >>> t = (4, 5.5, "spam")
    >>> t[0]
    >>> t[1]
    >>> t[2]

The difference between these two types is that lists are mutable, and tuples are immutable:

>>> l[0] = 3
>>> l.append('egg')  # For a full list of methods, type l. then press TAB!
>>> l.insert(3,'spam')
>>> l
[3, 5.5, 'spam', 'spam', 'egg']

>>> t[0] = 3
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: 'tuple' object does not support item assignment

There are reasons why tuples are a useful feature (faster and hashable are the two main ones), but for now, it’s enough for you to know there is such a difference.

One useful operation with lists and tuples is +, which can be used for concatenation:

>>> [1,2,3] + [4,5,6]
[1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

>>> ('spam', 'egg') + ('more spam','!')
('spam', 'egg', 'more spam', '!')


Unlike Numpy arrays:

  • Python lists can contain anything, including other lists, objects, or complex data structures.

  • When you slice a Python list it returns a copy.

  • Vector math does not work on lists
    • Multiplying a list by an int n gives n copies of the list.
    • Adding another list concatentates.
    • Multiplying by a float gives an error.

Sets (set) are a third type of sequence which you can make from a tuple or a list:

>>> set([1, 2, 3, 2, 'spam', 'egg', 'spam'])
set([1, 2, 3, 'egg', 'spam'])

Note that duplicate items have been removed. This is the mathematical definition of a set, i.e. a collection of distinct objects. The order of the objects is arbitrary (order is not preserved). Various operators can be used to represent set operations:

>>> set([1,2,3]) - set([3,4])
set([1, 2])

>>> set([1,2,3]) & set([3,4])

>>> set([1,2,3]) | set([3,4])
set([1, 2, 3, 4])


Strings (str) will be familiar from other programming languages:

>>> s = "Spam egg spam spam"

You can use either single quotes ('), double quotes ("), or triple quotes (''') to enclose a string (the last one is used for multi-line strings). To include single or double quotes inside a string, you can either use the opposite quote to enclose the string:

>>> "I'm"

>>> '"hello"'

or you can escape them:

>>> 'I\'m'

>>> "\"hello\""

You can access individual characters or chunks of characters:

>>> s[5]

>>> s[9:13]

Note that strings are immutable (like tuples), that is you cannot change the value of certain characters without creating a new string:

>>> s[5] = 'r'
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: 'str' object does not support item assignment

As for lists, and tuples, concatenation is done with +:

>>> "hello," + " " + "world!"
'hello, world!'

Finally, strings have many methods associated with them, here are a few examples:

>>> s.upper()
'SPAM EGG SPAM SPAM'  # An uppercase version of the string

>>> s.index('egg')
5  # An integer giving the position of the sub-string

>>> s.split()
['Spam', 'egg', 'spam', 'spam']  # A list of strings


One of the remaining types are dictionaries (dict) which you can think of as look-up tables:

>>> d = {'name':'m31', 'ra':10.68, 'dec':41.27}
>>> d['name']
>>> d['flux'] = 4.5
>>> d
{'flux': 4.5, 'dec': 41.27, 'name': 'm31', 'ra': 10.68}

A note on Python objects

Most things in Python are objects. But what is an object?

Every constant, variable, or function in Python is actually a object with a type and associated attributes and methods. An attribute a property of the object that you get or set by giving the <object_name> + dot + <attribute_name>, for example img.shape. A method is a function that the object provides, for example img.argmax(axis=0) or img.min().

Use tab completion in IPython to inspect objects and start to understand attributes and methods. To start off create a list of 4 numbers:

l = [3, 1, 2, 1]

This will show the available attributes and methods for the Python list a. Using <TAB>-completion and help is a very efficient way to learn and later remember object methods!

In [17]: a.<TAB> a.append a.extend a.insert a.remove a.sort a.count a.index a.pop a.reverse

Here you see useful looking functions like append or sort which you can get help for and use: