Python for Fortran programmers III: Learning Python

Learning Python is easier than learning Fortran. First, because the language has a simpler syntax and its interactive behaviour makes errors easier to catch and more understandable. Second, because there are lots of resources, many of them free: tutorials, books, etc.
These two interactive web-pages are a good example of the type of help you cannot find with Fortran:

That said, at some point you might feel dismayed by the size of the language. Python is much larger than Fortran. Both the core language and the available extensions. You’ll have to assume that, unless you become too hooked on it, there’ll be many areas of the language that you will – and can – ignore. With the risk of blasphemy, I dare say you can write hundreds of useful scripts completely ignoring Object Oriented Programming.

The number of available packages is also overwhelming. Take, for example, the calculation of the square root. In most tutorials you are told to import the math module which contains a sqrt function. math.sqrt will give an error for negative arguments. math.sqrt only returns floats. If you want deal with complex numbers, you need to import cmath. But cmath.sqrt always returns a complex number, even if its imaginary part is zero. All this is similar to the Fortran sqrt function (which implicitly calls two different functions for real and complex arguments). But with python you can both have your cake and eat it. There is a third sqrt function which returns a complex number only when the argument is negative. It can be found in the numpy.lib.scimath module. This third function can be useful to you, but you can also live without it. Getting used to ignoring all these potentially useful features is part of the learning process. Eventually you will remember and look for the ones you really need.

One last confusing issue is which Python version to learn. As with Fortran, the newest versions are better, but the problem with Python is that versions 3.x are not backward compatible with the wide-spread versions 2.x. My recommendation is that you learn python 3.x. Mainly because it is the future. Most packages have already been translated into Python 3. I think installing python3, numpy, scipy, sympy, and ipython is enough to start using python in scientific problems. Make sure you install these packages for python3. Each python version can host its own modules completely independently. If you are using an older distribution, you can also install them quite easily with pip. Of course, things can get more complex, as Konrad Hinsen reports in his interesting blog.

Despite their incompatibility, Python3 and Python2 are not that different. Probably, they are less different than FORTRAN77 and Fortran 2000. The most significant differences that you will find are that print() is a function in Python3 (it uses parenthesis) and that input() works differently.

And if you start programming, please do it in a nice way.


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About Ramon Crehuet

I'm a Computational Biochemist working at the IQAC institute of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)

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