5.2 Primitive Numerical Data Types

Unfortunately, the lovely mathematical abstraction of integers and real numbers is only partially supported by finite-precision computer arithmetic.

Integers

Stan uses 32-bit (4-byte) integers for all of its integer representations. The maximum value that can be represented as an integer is \(2^{31}-1\); the minimum value is \(-(2^{31})\).

When integers overflow, their values wrap. Thus it is up to the Stan programmer to make sure the integer values in their programs stay in range. In particular, every intermediate expression must have an integer value that is in range.

Integer arithmetic works in the expected way for addition, subtraction, and multiplication, but rounds the result of division (see section for more information).

Reals

Stan uses 64-bit (8-byte) floating point representations of real numbers. Stan roughly1 follows the IEEE 754 standard for floating-point computation. The range of a 64-bit number is roughly \(\pm 2^{1022}\), which is slightly larger than \(\pm 10^{307}\). It is a good idea to stay well away from such extreme values in Stan models as they are prone to cause overflow.

64-bit floating point representations have roughly 15 decimal digits of accuracy. But when they are combined, the result often has less accuracy. In some cases, the difference in accuracy between two operands and their result is large.

There are three special real values used to represent (1) not-a-number value for error conditions, (2) positive infinity for overflow, and (3) negative infinity for overflow. The behavior of these special numbers follows standard IEEE 754 behavior.

Not-a-number

The not-a-number value propagates. If an argument to a real-valued function is not-a-number, it either rejects (an exception in the underlying C++) or returns not-a-number itself. For boolean-valued comparison operators, if one of the arguments is not-a-number, the return value is always zero (i.e., false).

Infinite values

Positive infinity is greater than all numbers other than itself and not-a-number; negative infinity is similarly smaller. Adding an infinite value to a finite value returns the infinite value. Dividing a finite number by an infinite value returns zero; dividing an infinite number by a finite number returns the infinite number of appropriate sign. Dividing a finite number by zero returns positive infinity. Dividing two infinite numbers produces a not-a-number value as does subtracting two infinite numbers. Some functions are sensitive to infinite values; for example, the exponential function returns zero if given negative infinity and positive infinity if given positive infinity. Often the gradients will break down when values are infinite, making these boundary conditions less useful than they may appear at first.

Promoting Integers to Reals

Stan automatically promotes integer values to real values if necessary, but does not automatically demote real values to integers. For very large integers, this will cause a rounding error to fewer significant digits in the floating point representation than in the integer representation.

Unlike in C++, real values are never demoted to integers. Therefore, real values may only be assigned to real variables. Integer values may be assigned to either integer variables or real variables. Internally, the integer representation is cast to a floating-point representation. This operation is not without overhead and should thus be avoided where possible.


  1. Stan compiles integers to int and reals to double types in C++. Precise details of rounding will depend on the compiler and hardware architecture on which the code is run.