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Pairing functions for Python

Pairing functions take two integers and give you one integer in return. What makes a pairing function special is that it is invertable; You can reliably depair the same integer value back into it's two original values in the original order. Besides their interesting mathematical properties, pairing functions have some practical uses in software development.

This is a python implementation of the Cantor pairing function and provides two functions, pair and depair.


$ pip install pairing


from pairing import pair, depair

pair(22, 33)  # 1573
pair(33, 22)  # 1562
depair(1573) # (22, 33)
depair(1562) # (33, 32)

When (not) to use this

So the pairing functions work, but why not just use two-tuples? After all,

(22, 33)

is certainly more explicit than some magic long integer like


Everyone who uses this value downstream had better know how to solve the riddle! "Is that a pair of values or is the value actually 1573?". For the vast majority of problems, you should just stick with tuples to represent pairs of integers.

But there may be situations where a pairing function can be useful if applied carefully:

  • You want to track pairs of integer values but the protocol, schema or API will only accept scalars - single integer values, not collections. Using pairing functions in this context should be reserved as a hack of last resort when the system can not be modified to accommodate a collection.

  • You have tuples as a result of element-wise array operations and want to store it in a numpy ndarray. While numpy supports tuples, they will not give you the best performance and are not a supported data type for many numpy optimization techniques. For example, you could perform the pair algebra using numexpr to gain big speedups over any numpy manipulation and tuple data types to achieve the same effect.

import numexpr as ne
import numpy as np
from pairing import depair

a = np.random.randint(101, 103, (4, 3))
b = np.random.randint(101, 103, (4, 3))
paired = ne.evaluate("0.5 * (a + b) * (a + b + 1) + b")

assert depair(paired[2, 2]) == (a[2, 2], b[2, 2])
  • You have two-integer tuples as keys and want to serialize the data to JSON, which does not allow collections as keys.
>>> d = {(22, 33):'foo'}
>>> json.dumps(d)
Traceback (most recent call last):
TypeError: keys must be a string

Pairing functions could bypass this limitation.

>>> dc = dict(zip([pair(*x) for x in d.keys()], d.values()))
>>> dc
{1573: 'foo'}
>>> json.dumps(dc)
'{"1573": "foo"}'

Both producer and consumer of JSON would need to agree on the details as to which keys to pair/depair. There are many reasons why not to choose this route (tight coupling, data fragility) but it might work in a pinch.


TL;DR Use non-negative integers that are not ridiculously large (less than 16 digits).

First off, negative values are not supported

pair(-1, 33)  # ValueError: -1 and 33 cannot be paired

Zeros are fine

pair(0, 33)  # 594

We can iterate through a range of integers and confirm that this works perfectly, at least for a certain range of positive integers

for i in range(9,52,3):
    p = pair(2**i, 2**i)
    print p, "(2^{i}, 2^{i})".format(i=i)

525312 (2^9, 2^9)
33562624 (2^12, 2^12)
2147549184 (2^15, 2^15)
137439477760 (2^18, 2^18)
8796097216512 (2^21, 2^21)
562949986975744 (2^24, 2^24)
36028797287399424 (2^27, 2^27)
2305843011361177600 (2^30, 2^30)
147573952606856282112 (2^33, 2^33)
9444732965876729380864 (2^36, 2^36)
604462909808414098980864 (2^39, 2^39)
38685626227676929683619840 (2^42, 2^42)
2475880078570830918542426112 (2^45, 2^45)
158456325028529238137041321984 (2^48, 2^48)
10141204801825839715573253013504 (2^51, 2^51)

But there do exist practical limits on the size of inputs. In Python, long integers are implemented with double-precision floating points and can represent integers exactly... up to a certain point. With numbers greater than 251, long integers are not guaranteed to be exact and can result in silent bugs that could catch you off-gaurd if you're not aware.

values = (2**51 + 1, 2**51 + 1)        # (2251799813685249, 2251799813685249)
encoded = pair(*values, safe=False)    # 10141204801825848722772507754496L
depair(encoded)                        # (2251799813685250, 2251799813685248)

That's not good. Noticed that we specified safe=False which allows these sorts of errors to pass without warning.

Let's not fail silently! Using the default safe=True will perform a full pair-depair cycle and confirm that the values are stable. If not, the function will raise a ValueError:

encoded = pair(*values)
# ValueError: 2251799813685249 and 2251799813685249 cannot be paired


Try the test and benchmark script first:

$ python3
Tests pass.
0.47101 sec, 20000 iterations

Tested on python3.4, python2.7, pypy


Encode pairs of integers as single integer values using the Cantor pairing algorithm



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