How It Works

Tristan Hume edited this page Dec 2, 2011 · 1 revision

The internals of !SymPy has changed many times. The current state in the trunk is described in SymPySvn.

We try to make the sources easily understandable, so you can look into the sources and read the doctests, it should be well documented and if you don't understand something, ask on the mailinglist.

  • For !SymPy <= 0.4.3 the documentation is on this page
  • For !SymPy == 0.5.0 the documentation is in SympyResearch
  • For !SymPy > 0.5.0 and svn, read SymPySvn and/or read the sources

You can find all the decisions archived in the Issues, to see rationale for doing this and that. If you want to have the full picture, read all 3 documentations (<=0.4.3, ==0.5.0, >0.5.0), this will give you the historical background and you'll see what we tried, what ideas were behind the decisions made and how we arrived at the current state.

Documentation to !SymPy <= 0.4.3 is below.


All symbolic things are implemented using subclasses of the Basic class. First, you need to create symbols using Symbol("x") or numbers using Rational(5) or Real(34.3). Then you construct the expression using any class from !SymPy. For example Add(Symbol("a"),Symbol("b")) gives an instance of the Add class. You can call all methods, which the particular class supports.

For easier use, there is a syntactic sugar for expressions like:

cos(x)+1 is equal to cos(x).__add__(1) is equal to Add(cos(x),Rational(1))


2/cos(x) is equal to cos(x).__rdiv__(2) is equal to Mul(Rational(2),Pow(cos(x),Rational(-1))).

So, you can write normal expressions using python arithmetics like this:

print e

but from the sympy point of view, we just need the classes Add, Mul, Pow, Rational.

Automatic evaluation to canonical form: eval()

For computation, all expressions need to be in a canonical form, this is achieved using the method eval(), which only performs unexpensive operations necessary to put the expression in the canonical form. So the canonical form doesn't mean the simplest possible expresion. The exact list of operations performed by eval() depends on the implementation. Obviously, the definition of the canonical form is arbitrary, the only requirement is that all equivalent expressions must have the same canonical form. We tried the conversion to a canonical (standard) form to be as fast as possible and also in a way so that the result is what you would write by hand - so for example b*a + -4 + b + a*b + 4 + (a+b)^2 becomes 2*a*b + b + (a+b)^2. The order of terms in the sum is sorted according to their hash values, so they don't have to be in the alphabetical order (depends on the hash implementation).

Whenever you construct an expression, for example Add(x,x), the instance of the class Add is constructed, in this case it represents x+x, and then it's eval() method is called automatically and the result of eval() is actually returned. In this case:


e actually is an instance of Mul(2,x), because Add.eval() retuned Mul. This magic is done using the AutomaticEvaluationType metaclass, which is implemented in and the class Basic. This metaclass just constructs a given instance and returns the result of it's eval() method. All the other classes in sympy just don't have to care about it. All that is needed when you create a new sympy class is to optionally implement it's eval() method to simplify things like cos(0) to 1. It's not mandatory, if you don't want any simplifications to happen, but then cos(0)==1 would return False.

There is no place in the code, which needs to think about evaluation and eval(), with two exceptions:

  • the eval() itself, whose responsibility is to return a canonical form of self. Whatever the canonical form is - this is completely optional and depends only what we implement inside of eval().
  • There are very rare cases, where you actually don't want the automatic evaluation to happen, currently only 3:
    1. in Pow.expand(), we call Mul(a+b,a+b).expand(), but we don't want that to be evaluated, because it would change to Pow(a+b,2).expand() resulting in infinite recursion.
    2. Add.eval() and Mul.eval() after converting itself to canonical form, we have n arguments and we need to construct Add or Mul using these arguments and we set evaluate=False, otherwise we again would get infinite recursion.

This is handled by the metaclass AutomaticEvaluationType in It simulates another keyword parameter to all __init__s: evaluate, default is True, which means that after construction of any instance, the AutomaticEvaluationType will call it's eval() method. If you set evaluate=False, the eval() method is not called. Example:


is just (a+b)*(a+b) and


is the same as Mul(a+b,a+b, evaluate=True), which is (a+b)**2.


Expressions can be compared using a regular python syntax:


This is equivalent to (a+b).__eq__(b+a) and the Basic.__eq__() method just calls eval() to both self and the argument and then compare the hashes.

Which means that if the expansion operation is not performed upon evaluation (which is reasonable), then (a+b)^2 != (a^2+2ab+b^2), on the other hand ((a+b)^2).expand() == (a^2+2ab+b^2). As we said, what exactly is performed in eval() depends on the implementation, for example the expansion would be in pow.eval(). In the current implementation of sympy, we do not perform expansion in pow.eval().

We made the following decision in sympy: a=Symbol("x") and another b=Symbol("x") (with the same string "x") is the same thing, i.e a==b is True. Note that this is different from Ginac. We chose a==b, because it is more natural - exp(x)==exp(x) is also True for the same intance of x but different instances of exp, so we chose to have exp(x)==exp(x) even for different instances of x.

Sometimes, you need to have a unique symbol, for example as a temporary one in some calculation, which is going to be substituted for something else at the end anyway. This is achieved using Symbol("x",dummy=True) or simply as Symbol("x",True). So, to sum it up: Symbol("x")==Symbol("x"), but Symbol("x",True)!=Symbol("x",True).


There are no given requiremens on classes in the library. For example, if they don't implement the diff() method and you construct an expression using such a class, then trying to use the Basic.series() method will raise an exception of not founding the diff() method in your class. This "duck typing" has an advantage that you just implement the functionality which you need. You can define the function cos like this

class cos(Basic):
    def __init__(self,arg):

and use it like 1+cos(x), but if you don't implement the diff() method, you will not be able to call (1+cos(x)).series(). the symbolic object is characterized (defined) by the things which it can do. so implementing more methods like diff, subs etc., you are creating a "shape" of the symbolic object. Useful things to implement in new classes are: hash (to use the class in comparisons), eval (to do some easy rewritings automatically, like a+a -> 2a), diff (to use it in series expansion), subs (to use it in expressions, where some parts are being substituted), series (if the series cannot be computed using the general basic.series() method). When you create a new class, don't worry about this too much - just try to use it in your code, and you will realize immediately, which methods need to be implemented in each situation.

All objects in the sympy are immutable - in the sense, that any operation (like eval() for example) just returns a new instance (it can return the same instance only if it didn't change). This is a common mistake to change the current instance, like self.arg=self.arg +1 (wrong!). Use arg=self.arg + 1;return arg instead. The object in immutable in the sense of the symbolic expression it represents. It can modify itself to keep track of for example its hash. Or it can precalculate anything regarding the expression it contains. But the expression cannot be changed. So you can pass any instance to other objects, because you don't have to worry that it will change, or that this would break anything.


So, those are the main ideas behind sympy, which we try to obey. The rest depends on the current implementation and can possibly change in the future. The point of all of this is that the inter dependecies inside sympy should be kept to a minimum. If one wants to add new functionality to sympy, all that is necessary is to create a subclass of Basic and implement what you want.

Other systems

very interesting link describing the algorithms used by mathematica: [ here]

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