Lazy Constructive Numbers and the Stern-Brocot Tree

Posted on December 14, 2019
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In dependently typed languages, it’s often important to figure out a good “low-level” representation for some concept. The natural numbers, for instance:

data Nat = Z | S Nat

For “real” applications, of course, these numbers are offensively inefficient, in terms of both space and time. But that’s not what I’m after here: I’m looking for a type which best describes the essence of the natural numbers, and that can be used to prove and think about them. In that sense, this representation is second to none: it’s basically the simplest possible type which can represent the naturals.

Let’s nail down that idea a little better. What do we mean when a type is a “good” representation for some concept.

With that laundry list of requirements, it’s no wonder that it’s often tricky to figure out the “right” type for a concept.

In this post, I’m going to talk about a type for the rational numbers, and I’m going to try satisfy those requirements as best I can.

The Rationals as a Pair of Numbers

Our first attempt at representing the rationals might use a fraction:

data Frac = Integer :/ Integer

This obviously fails the redundancy property. The fractions 12\frac{1}{2} and 24\frac{2}{4} represent the same number, but have different underlying values.

So the type isn’t suitable as a potential representation for the rationals. That’s not to say that this type is useless: far from it! Indeed, Haskell’s Data.Ratio uses something quite like this to implement rationals.

If you’re going to deal with redundant elements, there are two broad ways to deal with it. Data.Ratio’s approach is to normalise on construction, and only export a constructor which does this. This gives you a pretty good guarantee that there won’t be any unreduced fractions lying around in you program. Agda’s standard library also uses an approach like this, although the fact that the numerator and denominator are coprime is statically verified by way of a proof carried in the type.

The other way to deal with redundancy is by quotient. In Haskell, that kind of means doing the following:

instance Eq Frac where
  (x :/ xd) == (y :/ yd) = (x * yd) == (y * xd)
instance Ord Frac where
  compare (x :/ xd) (y :/ yd) = compare (x * yd) (y * xd)

We don’t have real quotient types in Haskell, but this gets the idea across: we haven’t normalised our representation internally, but as far as anyone using the type is concerned, they shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between 12\frac{1}{2} and 24\frac{2}{4}.

Th Num instance is pretty much just a restating of the axioms for fractions.

Num instance for Frac.
instance Num Frac where
  fromInteger n = n :/ 1
  (x :/ xd) * (y :/ yd) = (x * y) :/ (xd * yd)
  (x :/ xd) + (y :/ yd) = (x * yd + y * xd) :/ (xd * yd)
  signum (n :/ d) = signum (n * d) :/ 1
  abs n = signum n * n
  (x :/ xd) - (y :/ yd) = (x * yd - y * xd) :/ (xd * yd)

Cubical Agda, of course, does have real quotient types. There, the Eq instance becomes a path constructor.

data: Type₀ where
  _÷_ : (n d :) 
  reduce :  xⁿ xᵈ yⁿ yᵈ 
           xⁿ ℕ* yᵈ ≡ yⁿ ℕ* xᵈ 
           xⁿ ÷ xᵈ ≡ yⁿ ÷ yᵈ

But we’ll leave the Agda stuff for another post.

The Rationals as a Trace of Euclid’s Algorithm

Now we get to the cool stuff. To reduce a fraction, we usually do something like getting the greatest common divisor of each operand. One nice way to do that is to use Euclid’s algorithm:

gcd :: Natural -> Natural -> Natural
gcd n m = case compare n m of
  EQ -> n
  LT -> gcd n (m - n)
  GT -> gcd (n - m) m

Let’s run that function on three different inputs: 23\frac{2}{3}, 46\frac{4}{6}, and 56\frac{5}{6}.

gcd 2 3 => case compare 2 3 of
  LT -> gcd 2 (3 - 2) => case compare 2 1 of
    GT -> gcd (2 - 1) 1 => case compare 1 1 of
      EQ -> 1

gcd 4 6 => case compare 4 6 of
  LT -> gcd 4 (6 - 4) => case compare 4 2 of
    GT -> gcd (4 - 2) 2 => case compare 2 2 of
      EQ -> 2

gcd 5 6 => case compare 5 6 of
  LT -> gcd 5 (6 - 5) => case compare 5 1 of
    GT -> gcd (5 - 1) 1 => case compare 4 1 of
      GT -> gcd (4 - 1) 1 => case compare 3 1 of
        GT -> gcd (3 - 1) 1 => case compare 2 1 of
          GT -> gcd (2 - 1) 1 => case compare 1 1 of
            EQ -> 1

Those all return the right things, but that’s not what’s interesting here: look at the chain of comparison results. For the two fractions which are equivalent, their chains are equal.

This turns out to hold in general. Every rational number can be (uniquely!) represented as a list of bits, where each bit is a comparison result from Euclid’s algorithm.

data Bit = O | I

type Rational = [Bit]

abs :: Frac -> Rational
abs = unfoldr f
    f (n :/ d) = case compare n d of
      EQ -> Nothing
      LT -> Just (O, n :/ (d - n))
      GT -> Just (I, (n - d) :/ d)

And since we used unfoldr, it’s easy to reverse the algorithm to convert from the representation to a pair of numbers.

rep :: Rational -> Frac
rep = foldr f (1 :/ 1)
    f I (n :/ d) = (n + d) :/ d
    f O (n :/ d) = n :/ (n + d)

Now abs . rep is the identity function, and rep . abs reduces a fraction! We have identified an isomorphism between our type (a list of bits) and the rational numbers!

Well, between the positive rational numbers. Not to worry: we can add a sign before it. And, because our type doesn’t actually include 0, we don’t get the duplicate 0 problems we did with Int.

data Q
  = Neg Rational
  | Zero
  | Pos Rational 

We can also define some operations on the type, by converting back and forth.

instance Num Rational where
  fromInteger n = abs (n :/ 1)
  xs + ys = abs (rep xs + rep ys)
  xs * ys = abs (rep xs * rep ys)
  xs - ys = abs (rep xs - rep ys)

Rationals as a Path into The Stern-Brocot Tree

So we have a construction that has our desired property of canonicity. Even better, there’s a reasonably efficient algorithm to convert to and from it! Our next task will be examining the representation itself, and seeing what information we can get from it.

To do so we’ll turn to the subject of the title of this post: the Stern-Brocot tree.

The Stern-Brocot Tree. By Aaron Rotenberg, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons.

This tree, pictured above, has some incredible properties:

Both of these properties make it an excellent candidate for basing a representation on. As it turns out, that’s what we already did! Our list of bits above is precisely a path into the Stern-Brocot tree, where every O is a left turn and every I right.


The most important fact we’ve gleaned so far from the Stern-Brocot tree is that our representation is lexicographically ordered. While that may not seem like much, it turns our list of bits into a progressively-narrowing interval, which generates more and more accurate estimates of the true value. When we see a O at the head of the list, we know that the result must be smaller than 1; what follows will tell us on what side of 12\frac{1}{2} the answer lies, and so on.

This turns out to be quite a useful property: we often don’t need exact precision for some calculation, but rather some approximate answer. It’s even rarer still that we know exactly how much precision we need for a given expression (which is what floating point demands). Usually, the precision we need changes quite dynamically. If a particular number plays a more influential role in some expression, for instance, its precision is more important than the others!

By producing a lazy list of bits, however, we can allow the consumer to specify the precision they need, by demanding those bits as they go along. (In the literature, this kind of thing is referred to as “lazy exact arithmetic”, and it’s quite fascinating. The representation presented here, however, is not very suitable for any real computation: it’s incredibly slow. There is a paper on the topic: Niqui (2007), which examines the Stern-Brocot numbers in Coq).

In proofs, the benefit is even more pronounced: finding out that a number is in a given range by just inspecting the first element of the list gives an excellent recursion strategy. We can do case analysis on: “what if it’s 1”, “what if it’s less than 1”, and “what if it’s greater than 1”, which is quite intuitive.

There’s one problem: our evaluation function is defined as a foldr, and forces the accumulator at every step. We will need to figure out another evaluator which folds from the left.


So let’s look more at the “interval” interpretation of the Stern-Brocot tree. The first interval is (01,10)\left(\frac{0}{1},\frac{1}{0}\right): neither of these values are actually members of the type, which is why we’re not breaking any major rules with the 10\frac{1}{0}. To move left (to 12\frac{1}{2} in the diagram), we need to use a peculiar operation called “child’s addition”, often denoted with a \oplus.

abcd=a+cb+d \frac{a}{b} \oplus \frac{c}{d} = \frac{a+c}{b+d}

The name comes from the fact that it’s a very common mistaken definition of addition on fractions.

Right, next steps: to move left in an interval, we do the following:

left(𝑙𝑏,𝑢𝑏)=(𝑙𝑏,𝑙𝑏𝑢𝑏) \text{left} \left(\mathit{lb},\mathit{ub} \right) = \left( \mathit{lb}, \mathit{lb} \oplus \mathit{ub} \right)

In other words, we narrow the right-hand-side of the interval. To move right is the opposite:

right(𝑙𝑏,𝑢𝑏)=(𝑙𝑏𝑢𝑏,𝑢𝑏) \text{right} \left(\mathit{lb},\mathit{ub} \right) = \left( \mathit{lb} \oplus \mathit{ub} , \mathit{ub} \right)

And finally, when we hit the end of the sequence, we take the mediant value.

mediant(𝑙𝑏,𝑢𝑏)=𝑙𝑏𝑟𝑏 \text{mediant}\left(\mathit{lb} , \mathit{ub}\right) = \mathit{lb} \oplus \mathit{rb}

From this, we get a straightforward left fold which can compute our fraction.

infix 6 :-:
data Interval
  = (:-:)
  { lb :: Frac
  , ub :: Frac

mediant :: Interval -> Frac
mediant (b :/ d :-: a :/ c) = (a+b) :/ (c+d)

left, right :: Interval -> Interval
left  x = lb x :-: mediant x
right x = mediant x :-: ub x

rep' :: [Bit] -> Frac
rep' = mediant . foldl f ((0 :/ 1) :-: (1 :/ 0))
    f a I = right a
    f a O = left a

Monoids and Matrices

Before diving in and using this new evaluator to incrementalise our functions, let’s take a look at what’s going on behind the scenes of the “interval narrowing” idea.

It turns out that the “interval” is really a 2×22\times2 square matrix in disguise (albeit a little reordered).

(ab,cd)=(cadb) \left( \frac{a}{b} , \frac{c}{d} \right) = \left( \begin{matrix} c & a \\ d & b \end{matrix} \right)

Seen in this way, the beginning interval—(01,10)\left(\frac{0}{1} , \frac{1}{0}\right)—is actually the identity matrix. Also, the two values in the second row of the tree correspond to special matrices which we will refer to as LL and RR.

L=(1011)R=(1101) L = \left( \begin{matrix} 1 & 0 \\ 1 & 1 \end{matrix} \right) \; R = \left( \begin{matrix} 1 & 1 \\ 0 & 1 \end{matrix} \right)

It turns out that the left and right functions we defined earlier correspond to multiplication by these matrices.

left(x)=xL \text{left}(x) = xL right(x)=xR \text{right}(x) = xR

Since matrix multiplication is associative, what we have here is a monoid. mempty is the open interval at the beginning, and mappend is matrix multiplication. This is the property that lets us incrementalise the whole thing, by the way: associativity allows us to decide when to start and stop the calculation.


We now have all the parts we need. First, we will write an evaluator that returns increasingly precise intervals. Our friend scanl fits the requirement precisely.

approximate :: [Bit] -> [Interval]
approximate = scanl f mempty
    f i I = right i
    f i O = left  i

Next, we will need to combine two of these lists with some operation on fractions.

interleave :: (Frac -> Frac -> Frac)
           -> [Interval]
           -> [Interval]
           -> [Interval]
interleave (*) [xi] ys = map (\y -> x * lb y :-: x * ub y) ys
  where x = mediant xi
interleave (*) (x:xs) ys@(y:_) =
  (((*) `on` lb) x y :-: ((*) `on` ub) x y) : interleave (*) ys xs

The operation must respect orders in the proper way for this to be valid.

This pops one bit from each list in turn: one of the many possible optimisations would be to pull more information from the more informative value, in some clever way.

Finally, we have a function which incrementally runs some binary operator lazily on a list of bits.

quad :: (Frac -> Frac -> Frac)
     -> [Bit]
     -> [Bit]
     -> [Bit]
quad (*) xs ys = foldr f (unfoldr p) zs mempty
    zs = (interleave (*) `on` approximate) xs ys
    f x xs c
      | mediant c < lb x = I : f x xs (right c)
      | mediant c > ub x = O : f x xs (left  c)
      | otherwise = xs c
    t = mediant (last zs)
    p c = case compare (mediant c) t of
      LT -> Just (I, right c)
      GT -> Just (O, left  c)
      EQ -> Nothing

The function only ever inspects the next bit when it absolutely needs to.

The helper function f here is the “incremental” version. p takes over when the precision of the input is exhausted.

We can use this to write an addition function (with some added special cases to speed things up).

add :: [Bit] -> [Bit] -> [Bit]
add [] ys = I : ys
add xs [] = I : xs
add (I:xs) ys = I : add xs ys
add xs (I:ys) = I : add xs ys
add xs ys = quad (+) xs ys

We (could) also try and optimise the times we look for a new bit. Above we have noticed every case where one of the rationals is preceded by a whole part. After you encounter two Os, in addition if the two strings are inverses of each other the result will be 1. i.e. OOIOOI + OIOIIO = 11\frac{1}{1}. We could try and spot this, only testing with comparison of the mediant when the bits are the same. You’ve doubtless spotted some other possible optimisations: I have yet to look into them!

Inverting Functions

One of the other applications of lazy rationals is that they can begin to look like the real numbers. For instance, the p helper function above is basically defined extensionally. Instead of stating the value of the number, we give a function which tells us when we’ve made something too big or too small (which sounds an awful lot like a Dedekind cut to my ears). Here’s a function which inverts a given function on fractions, for instance.

inv :: (Frac -> Frac) -> [Bit] -> [Bit]
inv o n = unfoldr f mempty
    t = fromQ n
    f c = case compare (o (mediant c)) t of
      LT -> Just (I, right c)
      GT -> Just (O, left  c)
      EQ -> Nothing

Of course, the function has to satisfy all kinds of extra properties that I haven’t really thought a lot about yet, but no matter. We can use it to invert a squaring function:

sqrt :: [Bit] -> [Bit]
sqrt = inv (\x -> x * x)

And we can use this to get successive approximations to 2\sqrt{2}!

  = map (toDouble . mediant) (approximate (sqrt (abs (2 :/ 1))))
>>> mapM_ print root2Approx

Conclusions and Related Work

Using the Stern-Brocot tree to represent the rationals was formalised in Coq in Bertot (2003). The corresponding lazy operations are formalised in QArith. Its theory and implementation is described in Niqui (2007). Unfortunately, I found most of the algorithms impenetrably complex, so I can’t really judge how they compare to the ones I have here.

I mentioned that one of the reasons you might want lazy rational arithmetic is that it can help with certain proofs. While this is true, in general the two main reasons people reach for lazy arithmetic is efficiency and as a way to get to the real numbers.

From the perspective of efficiency, the Stern-Brocot tree is probably a bad idea. You may have noticed that the right branch of the tree contains all the whole numbers: this means that the whole part is encoded in unary. Beyond that, we generally have to convert to some fraction in order to do any calculation, which is massively expensive.

The problem is that bits in the same position in different numbers don’t necessarily correspond to the same quantities. In base 10, for instance, the numbers 561 and 1024 have values in the “ones” position of 1 and 4, respectively. We can work with those two values independent of the rest of the number, which can lead to quicker algorithms.

Looking at the Stern-Brocot encoding, the numbers 23\frac{2}{3} and 3 are represented by OI and II, respectively. That second I in each, despite being in the same position, corresponds to different values: 13\frac{1}{3} in the first, and 32\frac{3}{2} in the second.

Solutions to both of these problems necessitate losing the one-to-one property of the representation. We could improve the size of the representation of terms by having our LL and RR matrices be the following (Kůrka 2014):

L=(1012)R=(2101) L = \left( \begin{matrix} 1 & 0 \\ 1 & 2 \end{matrix} \right) \; R = \left( \begin{matrix} 2 & 1 \\ 0 & 1 \end{matrix} \right)

But now there will be gaps in the tree. This basically means we’ll have to use infinite repeating bits to represent terms like 12\frac{1}{2}.

We could solve the other problem by throwing out the Stern-Brocot tree entirely and using a more traditional positional number system. Again, this introduces redundancy: in order to represent some fraction which doesn’t divide properly into the base of the number system you have to use repeating decimals.

The second reason for lazy rational arithmetic is that it can be a crucial component in building a constructive interpretation of the real numbers. This in particular is an area of real excitement at the moment: HoTT has opened up some interesting avenues that weren’t possible before for constructing the reals (Bauer 2016).

In a future post, I might present a formalisation of these numbers in Agda. I also intend to look at the dyadic numbers.

Update 26/12/2019: thanks Anton Felix Lorenzen and Joseph C. Sible for spotting some mistakes in this post.


Bauer, Andrej. 2016. “The real numbers in homotopy type theory.” Faro, Portugal.
Bertot, Yves. 2003. “A simple canonical representation of rational numbers.” Electronic Notes in Theoretical Computer Science 85 (7). Mathematics, Logic and Computation (Satellite Event of ICALP 2003) (September): 1–16. doi:10.1016/S1571-0661(04)80754-0.
Kůrka, Petr. 2014. “Exact real arithmetic for interval number systems.” Theoretical Computer Science 542 (July): 32–43. doi:10.1016/j.tcs.2014.04.030.
Niqui, Milad. 2007. “Exact arithmetic on the Stern tree.” Journal of Discrete Algorithms 5 (2). 2004 Symposium on String Processing and Information Retrieval (June): 356–379. doi:10.1016/j.jda.2005.03.007.