Computers do arithmetic to a finite number of significant figures, and this can mean that the answers are quite different to the rules of algebra in which it is assumed that all results are calculated exactly.

One well-known example involves the sum of the harmonic series

The problem manifests itself much more rapidly in single precision arithmetic, so this example is in C (or C++) in which one can specify single precision.


int main(){
  int i;
  float sum;

    if (i%100000==0) printf("%10d:  %f\n",i,sum);

  return 0;

The above code accumulates in the single precision variable sum the sum of the harmonic series for its first three million terms. Every one hundred thousand terms it prints the current number of terms and sum.

To run it, put the above code into a file whose name must end .c, e.g. sum.c, and then type:

  $ gcc sum.c
  $ ./a.out

The interesting part of its output reads:

   1900000:  15.215665
   2000000:  15.311032
   2100000:  15.403683
   2200000:  15.403683
   2300000:  15.403683

The sum "converges" after about two million terms to 15.403683.

Why is this? With numbers stored to a finite precision, for sufficiently small ε the numbers 15.4 and 15.4+ε are identical. It seems that this is true for ε smaller than about 0.000 000 5, so 15.4 and 15.400 000 5 are indistinguishable. Computers actually calculate in base-2, not base-10, so 15 would be represented as 11112. Single precision has effectively 24 binary digits of precision, so the next number larger than
1111.0000 0000 0000 0000 00002 is
1111.0000 0000 0000 0000 00012.

That last number would be interpreted as
or 15+1/220. As 220 is just over a million (1,048,576), it might be expected that the sum would stop growing after a million terms. This is not quite so. Given that the computer can store, in single precision, 15 and 15+2-20, attempts to add numbers between 2-20 and 2-21 to 15 will all give the answer 15+2-20 as this is nearer to the correct answer than the other possibility of simply 15. So the sum stops growing after 221 terms, or 2,097,152.

In this case moving to double precision "solves" the issue, for double precision actually has slightly more than twice the precision of single precision, at 53 binary digits. The sum will exceed 32, so there will be six binary digits before the point, but that still leaves 47 after it, so the sum will grow until 248 terms are added. This would take many days to achieve.

Better Sums

Rather than summing the harmonic series forwards, one could sum it backwards. This helps quite a lot, as each term is then added to the sum of all terms smaller than it, rather than the sum of all terms larger than it. Or would could simply move to double precision. The following code performs the sums using all three techniques: single precision forwards, single precision backwards, and double precision forwards.


int main(){
  int i,j;
  float forward,backward;
  double sum;

    for(j=1;j<=i;j++) forward+=1.0/j;
    for(j=i;j>0;j--) backward+=1.0/j;
    for(j=1;j<=i;j++) sum+=1.0/j;
    printf("%10d:  %f  %f  %lf\n",i,forward,backward,sum);

  return 0;

It can be compiled and run in the same way as the first example.

Its output will be something like:

        32:  4.058496  4.058496  4.058495
        64:  4.743892  4.743891  4.743891
       128:  5.433147  5.433146  5.433147
       256:  6.124346  6.124345  6.124345
       512:  6.816517  6.816516  6.816517
      1024:  7.509183  7.509176  7.509176
      2048:  8.202082  8.202080  8.202079
      4096:  8.895108  8.895104  8.895104
      8192:  9.588196  9.588188  9.588190
     16384:  10.281306  10.281313  10.281307
     32768:  10.974409  10.974443  10.974439
     65536:  11.667428  11.667588  11.667578
    131072:  12.360085  12.360732  12.360722
    262144:  13.051304  13.053881  13.053867
    524288:  13.737018  13.747056  13.747013
   1048576:  14.403684  14.440231  14.440160
   2097152:  15.403683  15.132899  15.133307
   4194304:  15.403683  15.829607  15.826454
   8388608:  15.403683  16.514153  16.519601
  16777216:  15.403683  17.232708  17.212748
  33554432:  15.403683  17.827648  17.905895

It is often said that single precision numbers have about seven decimal digits of precision. This may be so, but the final answer after millions of calculations might not. Here the final two single precision answers of what is the same sum in algebraic terms do not even agree to two significant figures.

There are other things that can be understood from the above table. Our theory suggests that, for the forward single precision sum, every term between 220+1 and 221 will be added as though it were 2-20. This is adding 2-20 a total of 220 times, so should add one to the total, a number which is larger than the correct sum for this range of just under 0.7. Between 1048576 (220) and 2097152 (221) the total for the forward single precision sum does indeed grow by one, putting it ahead of the better methods. Then it stops growing entirely, so the other methods overtake it.