Python: A Whirlwind Tour¶
In this tutorial, we’ll introduce the basic concepts of programming, which will be central to the programs that you will run on your robot. There are many different languages in which computers can be programmed, all with their advantages and disadvantages, but we use Python, specifically 3.6. We chose Python because it’s easy to learn, but also elegant and powerful.
At the end of the tutorial are exercises. The first ones for each section should be quite easy, while the higher-numbered exercises will be harder. Some will be very hard; try these if you’re up for a challenge.
Before we begin, a word on learning. The way that you learn to code is by doing it; make sure you try out the examples, fiddle with them, break them, try some of the exercises.
Using an interpreter¶
To run Python programs you need a something called an interpreter. This is a computer program which interprets human-readable Python code into something that the computer can execute. There are a number of online interpreters that should work even on a locked-down computer, such as you will probably find in your college.
If your computer has a compatible browser, go to http://repl.it and select Python3 from the dropdown. Enter your program in the box on the left, and click the arrow to run it.
If your browser isn’t compatible, another good online interpreter can be found at http://codeskulptor.org. It’s very similar; simply enter your program into the left pane and click the play button to run it. The output will appear in the right pane.
Whichever you choose, test it with this classic one line program:
Hello World! should appear in the output box.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with online interpreters for our needs, but if you want to use Python for something more advanced you’ll want an interpreter which runs directly on your computer. Downloads are available for all common OS’s from the website.
A statement is a line of code that does something. A program is a list of statements. For example:
x = 5 y = (x * 2) + 4 print("Number of bees:", y - 2)
The statements are executed one by one, in order. This example would
give the output
Number of bees: 12.
As you may have guessed, the
When you want the interpreter to treat something as a text value (for
example, after the
') or double (
but try to be consistent. Pieces of text that are treated like this are
Variables store values for later use, as in the first example. They can
store many different things, but the most relevant here are numbers,
strings (blocks of text), booleans (
False) and lists
(which we’ll come to later).
To set a variable, simply give its name, followed by
= and a value.
x = 8 my_string = "Tall ship"
You can ask the user to put some text into a variable with the
function (we’ll cover functions in more detail later):
name = input("What is your name?")
Certain things in your program, for example variables and functions, will need names. These names are called ‘identifiers’ and must follow these rules:
- Identifiers can contain letters, digits, and underscores. They may not contain spaces or other symbols.
- An identifier cannot begin with a digit.
- Identifiers are case sensitive. This means that
BEESare three different identifiers.
Code blocks and indentation¶
Python is reasonably unique in that it cares about indentation, and uses
it to decide which statements are referred to by things like
In most other programming languages, if you don’t indent your code it will run just fine, but any poor soul who has to read your code will hunt you down and hit you around the head with a large, wet fish. In Python, you’ll just get an error, which we’re sure you’ll agree is preferable.
A group of consecutive statements that are all indented by the same
distance is called a block.
if statements, as well as functions and
loops, all refer to the block that follows them, which must be indented
further than that statement. An example is in order. Let’s expand the
name = input("What is your name?") email = "Bank of Nigeria: Tax Refund" if name == "Tim": print("Hello Tim.") if email != "": print("You've got an email.") # (blocks can contain blank lines in the middle) if email != "Bank of Nigeria: Tax Refund": print("Looks legitimate, too!") else: print("No mail.") else: print("You're not Tim!") print("Python rocks.")
Output (for “Tim” as before):
Hello Tim. You've got an email! Python rocks.
To find the limits of an
if statement, just scan straight down until
you encounter another statement on the same indent level. Play around
with this example until you understand what’s happening.
One final thing: Python doesn’t mind how you indent lines, just so long as you’re consistent. Some text editors insert indent characters when you press tab; others insert spaces (normally four). They’ll often look the same, but cause errors if they’re mixed. If you’re using an online interpreter, you probably don’t need to worry. Otherwise, check your editor’s settings to make sure they’re consistent. Four spaces per indent level is the convention in Python. We’ll now move on from this topic before that last sentence causes a flame war.
Lists store more than one value in a single variable and allow you to set and retrieve values by their position (‘index’) in the list. For example:
shopping_list = ["Bread", "Milk", "PNP Transistors", "Newspaper"] print(shopping_list) shopping_list = "Magazine" print(shopping_list) print(shopping_list)
Bread PNP Transistors Magazine
Like most other programming languages, indices
start at 0, not 1. Due to this, the last element of this four-element
list is at index 3. Attempting to retrieve
cause an error.
You can find out the length of a list with the
len function, like
shopping_list = ["Bread", "Milk", "PNP Transistors", "Newspaper"] print("There are", len(shopping_list), "items on your list.")
Finally, you can add a value to the end of a list with the
shopping_list = ["Bread", "Milk", "PNP Transistors", "Newspaper"] shopping_list.append("Mince pies in October") print(shopping_list)
The values in a list can be of any type, even other lists. Also, a list can contain values of different types.
There are various other useful data structures that are beyond the scope of this tutorial, such as dictionaries (which allow indices other than numbers). You can find out more about these in python’s documentation.
while loop is the most basic type of loop. It repeats the
statements in the loop while a condition is true. For example:
x = 10 while x > 0: print(x) if x == 5: print("Half way there!") x = x - 1 print("Zero!")
10 9 8 7 6 5 Half way there! 4 3 2 1 Zero!
The condition is the same as it would be in an
if statement and the
block of code to put in the loop is denoted in the same way, too.
The most common application of loops is in conjunction with lists. The
for loop is designed specifically for that purpose. For example:
shopping_list = ["Bread", "Milk", "PNP Transistors", "Newspaper"] for x in shopping_list: print("[ ]", x)
The code is executed once for each item in the list, with
x set to
each item in turn. So, the output of this example is:
[ ] Bread [ ] Milk [ ] PNP Transistors [ ] Newspaper
Unfortunately, this method doesn’t tell you the index of the current
x is only a temporary variable, so modifying it has no effect
on the list itself (try it). This is where the
comes in (see Calling functions). It tells us
the index of each value we loop over. An example with numbers:
prices = [4, 5, 2, 1.50] # Add VAT for index, value in enumerate(prices): prices[index] = value * 1.20 print(prices)
[4.8, 6.0, 2.4, 1.7999999999999998]
Functions are pre-written bits of code that can be run (‘called’) at any
point. The simplest functions take no parameters and return nothing. For
exit function ends your program prematurely:
x = 10 while x > 0: print(x) x = x - 1 if x == 5: exit() # not supported in repl.it!
This will output the numbers 10 to 6, and then stop. Not very useful.
However, most functions take input values (‘parameters’) and output
something useful (a ‘return value’). For example, the
returns the length of the given list:
my_list = [42, "BOOMERANG!!!", [0, 3]] print(len(my_list))
Combined with the
range function, which returns a list of numbers in
a certain range, you get a list of indices for the list (you might want
to look back at that second
my_list = [42, "BOOMERANG!!!", [0, 3]] print(range(len(my_list)))
[0, 1, 2]
range function can also take multiple parameters:
print(range(5)) # numbers from 0 to 4. print(range(2, 5)) # numbers from 2 to 4. print(range(1, 10, 2)) # odd numbers from 1 to 10
[0, 1, 2, 3, 4] [2, 3, 4] [1, 3, 5, 7, 9]
There are many built-in functions supplied with Python (see
appendix). Most are in ‘modules’, collections
of functions which have to be imported. For example, the
contains mathematical functions. To use the
sin function, we must
import math print(math.sin(math.pi / 2))
Of course, you’ll want to make your own functions. To do this, you
precede a block of code with a
def statement, specifying an
identifier for the function, and any parameters you might want. For
def annoy(num_times): for i in range(num_times): print("Na na na-na na!") annoy(3)
The output would be three annoying lines of
Na na na-na na!.
To return a value, use the
return statement. A rather trivial
def multiply(x, y): return x * y print(multiply(2, 3))
Using functions effectively¶
Without functions, most programs would be very hard to read and maintain. Here’s an example (admittedly a little contrived):
my_string = "All bees like cheese when they're wearing hats." x = 0 for c in my_string: if c == "a": x = x + 1 y = 0 for c in my_string: if c == "e": y = y + 1
Before we explain the example, try and figure out what it does. What do
Now, let’s refine it with functions:
def count_letter(string, l): x = 0 for c in string: if c == l: x = x + 1 return x my_string = "Bees like cheese when they're wearing hats." x = count_letter(my_string, "a") y = count_letter(my_string, "e")
This version has a number of advantages:
- It’s far more obvious what the program does.
- The program is shorter, and cleaner.
- The code for counting letters in a string is in only one place, and can be reused.
The last point has another advantage. There’s a bug in this program: upper-case letters aren’t counted. It’s easy to fix, but in the function version we only have to apply the fix in one place. True, it would only be two places in the original, but in a major program, it could be thousands.
You should try and use functions wherever you see multiple lines of code that are repeated, or find yourself writing code to do the same thing (or a similar thing) more than once. In these situations, look at the relevant bits of code and try to think of a way to put it into a function.
When you set a variable inside a function, it will only keep its value inside that function. For example:
x = 2 def foo(): x = 3 print("In foo(), x =", x) foo() print("Outside foo(), x =", x)
In foo(), x = 3 Outside foo(), x = 2
This can get quite confusing, so it’s best to avoid giving variables
inside functions (‘local’ variables) the same identifier as those
outside. If you want to get information out of a function,
This concept is called ‘scope’. We say that variables which are changed inside a function are in a different scope from those outside.
You can have functions within functions, and this can actually be quite useful. In this situation, each nested function will also have its own scope.
Exercises: variables and mathematics¶
The first two lines of this program put two numbers entered by the user
int function converts a string
(a piece of text like the ones returned by
into a number (e.g.
42). Replace the comment with code that
averages the numbers and puts them in a variable called
string1 = input("Enter first number: ") string2 = input("Enter second number: ") a = int(string1) b = int(string2) # Store the average of a and b in the variable `average` print("The average of", a, "and", b, "is", average)
Run your code and check that it works.
Write a program which uses
input to take an X and a Y coordinate,
and calculate the distance from (0, 0) to (X, Y) using Pythagoras’
Theorem. Put the code into an interpreter and run it. Does it do what
You can find the square root of a number by raising
it to the power of 0.5, for example,
my_number ** 0.5.
Extension: can you adapt the program to calculate the distance between any two points?
A boolean value is either
False. For example:
print(42 > 5) print(4 == 2)
== are operators, just like
*, which return
booleans. Others include
<= (less than or equal to),
!= (not equal to). You can also use
(see the Operators appendix).
if statements execute code only if their condition is true. The code
to include in the
if is denoted by a number of indented lines. To
indent a line, press the tab key or insert four spaces at the start. You
can also include an
else statement, which is executed if the
condition is false. For example:
name = input("What is your name?") if name == "Tim": print("Hello Tim.") print("You've got an email.") else: print("You're not Tim!") print("Python rocks!")
If you typed “Tim” at the prompt, this example would output:
Hello Tim. You've got an email. Python rocks!
if in the
else block is very common:
price = 50000 * 1.3 if price < 60000: print("We can afford the tall ship!") else: if price < 70000: print("We might be able to afford the tall ship...") else: print("We can't afford the tall ship. :-(")
So common that there’s a special keyword,
elif, for the purpose. So,
the following piece of code is equivalent to the last:
price = 50000 * 1.3 if price < 60000: print("We can afford the tall ship!") elif price < 70000: print("We might be able to afford the tall ship...") else: print("We can't afford the tall ship. :-(")
We might be able to afford the tall ship...
if statements and blocks¶
Without running it, work out what output the following code will give:
some_text = "Duct Tape" if 5 > 4: print("Maths works.") if some_text == "duct tape": print("The case is wrong.") elif some_text == "Duct Tape": print("That's right.") else: print("Completely wrong.") else: print("Oh-oh.")
Run the code and check your prediction.
Age detection tool¶
Write a program that asks the user for their age, and prints a different message depending on whether they are under 18, over 65, or in between.
Exercises: lists and loops¶
A better average calculator¶
Write a program which calculates the average of a list of numbers. You can specify the list in the code.
Extension: You can tell when a user has not entered anything at a
input prompt when it returns the empty string,
"". Otherwise, it
returns a string (like “42.5”), which you can turn into a number with
float function. Additionally, extend your program to let the
user enter the list of values. Stop asking for new list entries when
they do not enter anything at the
input prompt. Example of how to
recognize when a user doesn’t enter anything:
var = input("Enter a number: ") if var == "": print("You didn't enter anything!") else: print("You entered", float(var))
Write a program which prints a list of numbers from 0 to 100, but replace numbers divisible by 3 with “Fizz”, numbers divisible by 5 with “Buzz”, and numbers divisible by both with “Fizz Buzz”.
Extension: create a list of numbers, and replace a number with “Fuzz” if it is a multiple of any number in the list.
Trees and triangles¶
You can combine (or ‘concatenate’) strings in Python with the
str = "Hello " str = str + "World!" print(str)
Write a program that asks the user for a number, and then prints a triangle of that height, with its right angle at the bottom left. For example, given the number 3, the program should output:
* ** ***
Try the same, but with the right angle in the top-right, like so (again, for input 3):
*** ** *
Extension: print out a tree shape of the given size. For example, a tree of size 4 would look like this:
* *** ***** ******* * *
Write a program that takes as input an angle (in radians) and the length of one side (of your choice) of a right-angled triangle. Print out the length of all sides of the triangle.
You’ll need the functions contained in the
module (docs here)
Python uses radians for its angles. If you are not comfortable with
radians, you can use the
radians function in the
math module to
convert to radians from degrees.
Extension: you can return multiple values from a function like so:
def foo(): return 1, 2, 3 x, y, z = foo()
Wrap your triangle calculation code in a function.
Write a function that takes a name as an input, and prints a message greeting that person.
Wrap the code for your average calculator from the Lists and Loops exercises in a function that takes a list as a parameter and returns its average.
What to do next¶
As mentioned at the start, there are loads of Python exercises out there on the Web. If you want to learn some more advanced concepts, there are more tutorials out there too. Here’s our recommendations of tutorials from Codecademy.
There are three types of operators in Python: arithmetic, comparison, and logical. I’ll list the most important.
The usual mathematical order (BODMAS) applies to these, just like in normal algebra.
- Remainder. For example,
5 % 2is 1,
4 % 2is 0.
- power (e.g.
4 ** 2is 4 squared)
These return a boolean (
False) value, and are used in
if statements and
while loops. These are always done after
- equal to, not equal to
- less than, less than or equal to, greater than, etc.
- returns true if the item on the left is contained in the item on the right. The items can be strings, lists, or other objects. For example:
if "car" in "Scarzy's hair": print("Of course.")
if 7 in [2, 35, 7, 8]: print("Found a seven!")
These operators are
not. They are done after
both arithmetic and comparisons. They’re pretty self-explanatory, with
x = 5 y = 8 z = 2 if x == 5 and y == 3: print("Yes") else: print("No") print(x == 5 or not y == 8) # could use y != 8 instead print(x == 2 and y == 3 or z == 2) # needs brackets for clarity!
No True True
When more than one boolean operator is used in an expression,
performed first (as it works on a single operand). After this,
is done before
or, but you should use brackets instead of relying on
that fact, for readability. So, the last line of the example should
print((x == 2 and y == 3) or z == 2)
A lot of functions are defined for you by Python. Those listed in the
docs are always
available, and are the most commonly used, including
Others are contained in modules. To use a function from a module, you
import that module, like so:
import math print(math.sqrt(4))
One of the most useful modules for the moment will be the
see the python docs for