A simple Scala application: calculating integrals

April 06, 2015

I embraced functional programming through Scala starting with the great Marting Odersky’s course on Coursera, following with the Reactive Programming course in Coursera (a second edition of which will start shortly and I really recommend you to sign up and follow it), and later on working with Play framework and Akka streams.

I spent a few years programming in Java in a purely imperative way, and as soon as I could understand the functional approach, I realized it is a great way to focus on the essence of the problem, and it provides a more organic way to decompose reasoning and handling complexity.

Of course the language itself doesn’t guarantee that the approach is functional: if you want you can write Scala almost like Java without semicolons. But despite not being purely functional and allowing mutable variables, Scala provides all the features to put in practice purely functional approach. Moreover the syntax is very similar to Java so the transition from Java, from the language point of view, is pretty smooth.

When I have seen the first examples of functional code I appreciated the fact that it provides the language tools to model directly mathematical functions. For example a mathematical function $$f$$ from $$A$$ to $$B$$:

is translated into a definition of a function in Scala as (the ??? mean that the function is still undefined):

scala> def f: Double => Double = ???
f: Double => Double


Functions in Scala are first class citizens, and they can be passed as arguments to other functions. This allows to compose things in a very straightforward way that procedural programming simply wouldn’t allow.

Consider for example calculating the integral of the $$sin(x)$$ function over the interval $$[0, \pi]$$, which we know from our math classes being 2. We map real numbers to their finite precision representation as Double, and we can have a Scala definition of $$\sin(x), x \in \mathbb{R}$$ as

def f: Double => Double = (x: Double) => Math.sin(x)


or even more concisely

scala> import Math.sin
import Math.sin
scala>def f: Double => Double = sin(_)
f: Double => Double


Now we can pproximate the integral with a finite sum:

with $$\Delta x = \pi / N$$ and $$x_n = n\Delta x$$.

We know the explicit way of finding N given $$\Delta x$$ and $$\pi$$, however let’s exploit a great feature of Scala which are Streams and lazy evaluation (see http://www.scala-lang.org/api/2.11.5/index.html#scala.collection.immutable.Stream). We can define the Stream of $$x_n$$ as a potentially unbounded sequence of doubles, with the guarantee that the next number will be generated on demand, lazily, only when required:

scala> val deltaX = 0.01
deltaX: Double = 0.01
scala> def xn = Stream.iterate(0.0)(_ + deltaX)
xn: scala.collection.immutable.Stream[Double]


Here we did two things: we created a Stream, where no value is allocated yet, all the values of which are created on demand, and we defined it with a def and not with a val in order to save memory allocation once we consumed the stream, as we want just the $$x_n$$ to be produced to generate the sum and we don’t want to retain it afterwards.

The stream xn defined above is potentially unbound, it represents all the sequence of xn obtained as 0, deltaX, deltaX + deltaX, deltaX + deltaX + deltaX, ... but we can set easily an upper limit in this way

scala> def xnPi = xn.takeWhile(_ < Math.PI)
xnPi: scala.collection.immutable.Stream[Double]


We can now take the values of the f function in each of these values simply by mapping the Stream of xn through the function:

scala> def ynPi = xnPi.map(f)
ynPi: scala.collection.immutable.Stream[Double]


In the context of Streams we can see the map application as a transformation from the sequence of $$x_n$$ to the sequence of $$f_n := f(x_n)$$. This interpretation of the map function applies only to sequence-like types such as Streams and Lists, but it has a very different interpretation in other types, where concepts coming from Category Theory come into place, and lead to the ideas of Monoids and Monads.

Now the only thing left to do is add up the ynPi and multiply them by $$\Delta x$$, and this can easily be achieved through a foldLeft application:

scala> deltaX * ynPi.foldLeft(0.0)(_ + _)
res1: Double = 1.9999900283082575


So we obtained quite simply, mapping directly the theoretical concepts down to language constructs, in 5 lines of code, a value pretty close to the real one. Consider how much verbosity and focus on the implementation details it would have taken having this implemented in Java or in any case in a procedural way. With Scala and in general with a functional approach we just focus on what we want to achieve, through which transformations, instead of focusing on the processing details. In this way we produce code that is more isolated, testable, and appliable in different contexts.

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