Floating Point Arithmetic

Computers approximate real values in \(\mathbb{R}\) using a fixed number of bits. This chapter explains how this is done and why it is important for writing robust Stan (and other numerical) programs. The subfield of computer science devoted to studying how real arithmetic works on computers is called numerical analysis.

Floating-point representations

Stan’s arithmetic is implemented using double-precision arithmetic. The behavior of most1 modern computers follows the floating-point arithmetic, IEEE Standard for Floating-Point Arithmetic (IEEE 754).

Finite values

The double-precision component of the IEEE 754 standard specifies the representation of real values using a fixed pattern of 64 bits (8 bytes). All values are represented in base two (i.e., binary). The representation is divided into two signed components:

  • significand (53 bits): base value representing significant digits

  • exponent (11 bits): power of two multiplied by the base

The value of a finite floating point number is

\[ v = (-1)^s \times c \, 2^q \]


A normal floating-point value does not use any leading zeros in its significand; subnormal numbers may use leading zeros. Not all I/O systems support subnormal numbers.

Ranges and extreme values

There are some reserved exponent values so that legal exponent values range between\(-(2^{10}) + 2 = -1022\) and \(2^{10} - 1 = 1023\). Legal significand values are between \(-2^{52}\) and \(2^{52} - 1\). Floating point allows the representation of both really big and really small values. Some extreme values are

  • largest normal finite number: \(\approx 1.8 \times 10^{308}\)

  • largest subnormal finite number: \(\approx 2.2 \times 10^{308}\)

  • smallest positive normal number: \(\approx 2.2 \times 10^{-308}\)

  • smallest positive subnormal number: \(\approx 4.9 \times 10^{-324}\)

Signed zero

Because of the sign bit, there are two ways to represent zero, often called “positive zero” and “negative zero”. This distinction is irrelevant in Stan (as it is in R), because the two values are equal (i.e., 0 == -0 evaluates to true).

Not-a-number values

A specially chosen bit pattern is used for the not-a-number value (often written as NaN in programming language output, including Stan’s).

Stan provides a value function not_a_number() that returns this special not-a-number value. It is meant to represent error conditions, not missing values. Usually when not-a-number is an argument to a function, the result will not-a-number if an exception (a rejection in Stan) is not raised.

Stan also provides a test function is_nan(x) that returns 1 if x is not-a-number and 0 otherwise.

Not-a-number values propagate under almost all mathematical operations. For example, all of the built-in binary arithmetic operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, negation) return not-a-number if any of their arguments are not-a-number. The built-in functions such as log and exp have the same behavior, propagating not-a-number values.

Most of Stan’s built-in functions will throw exceptions (i.e., reject) when any of their arguments is not-a-number.

Comparisons with not-a-number always return false, up to and including comparison with itself. That is, not_a_number() == not_a_number() somewhat confusingly returns false. That is why there is a built-in is_nan() function in Stan (and in C++). The only exception is negation, which remains coherent. This means not_a_number() != not_a_number() returns true.

Undefined operations often return not-a-number values. For example, sqrt(-1) will evaluate to not-a-number.

Positive and negative infinity

There are also two special values representing positive infinity (\(\infty)\) and negative infinity (\(-\infty\)). These are not as pathological as not-a-number, but are often used to represent error conditions such as overflow and underflow. For example, rather than raising an error or returning not-a-number, log(0) evaluates to negative infinity. Exponentiating negative infinity leads back to zero, so that 0 == exp(log(0)). Nevertheless, this should not be done in Stan because the chain rule used to calculate the derivatives will attempt illegal operations and return not-a-number.

There are value functions positive_infinity() and negative_infinity() as well as a test function is_inf().

Positive and negative infinity have the expected comparison behavior, so that negative_infinty() < 0 evaluates to true (represented with 1 in Stan). Also, negating positive infinity leads to negative infinity and vice-versa.

Positive infinity added to either itself or a finite value produces positive infinity. Negative infinity behaves the same way. However, attempts to subtract positive infinity from itself produce not-a-number, not zero. Similarly, attempts to divide infinite values results in a not-a-number value.

Literals: decimal and scientific notation

In programming languages such as Stan, numbers may be represented in standard decimal (base 10) notation. For example, 2.39 or -1567846.276452. Remember there is no point in writing more than 16 significant digits as they cannot be represented. A number may be coded in Stan using scientific notation, which consists of a signed decimal representation of a base and a signed integer decimal exponent. For example, 36.29e-3 represents the number \(36.29 \times 10^{-3}\), which is the same number as is represented by 0.03629.

Arithmetic precision

The choice of significand provides \(\log_{10} 2^{53} \approx 15.95\) decimal (base 10) digits of arithmetic precision. This is just the precision of the floating-point representation. After several operations are chained together, the realized arithmetic precision is often much lower.

Rounding and probabilities

In practice, the finite amount of arithmetic precision leads to rounding, whereby a number is represented by the closest floating-point number. For example, with only 16 decimal digits of accuracy,

1 + 1e-20 == 1

The closest floating point number to \(1 + 10^{-20}\) turns out to be \(1\) itself. By contrast,

0 + 1e-20 == 1e-20

This highlights the fact that precision depends on scale. Even though 1 + 1e-20 == 1, we have 1e-20 + 1e-20 == 2e-20, as expected.

Rounding also manifests itself in a lack of transitivity. In particular, it does not usually hold for three floating point numbers \(a, b, c\) that \((a + b) + c = a + (b + c)\).

In statistical applications, problems often manifest in situations where users expect the usual rules of real-valued arithmetic to hold. Suppose we have a lower triangular matrix \(L\) with strictly positive diagonal, so that it is the Cholesky factor of a positive-definite matrix \(L \, L^{\top}\). In practice, rounding and loss of precision may render the result \(L \, L^{\top}\) neither symmetric nor positive definite.

In practice, care must be taken to defend against rounding. For example, symmetry may be produced by adding \(L \, L^{\top}\) with its transpose and dividing by two, or by copying the lower triangular portion into the upper portion. Positive definiteness may be maintained by adding a small quantity to the diagonal.

Machine precision and the asymmetry of 0 and 1

The smallest number greater than zero is roughly \(0 + 10^{-323}\). The largest number less than one is roughly \(1 - 10^{-15.95}\). The asymmetry is apparent when considering the representation of that largest number smaller than one—the exponent is of no help, and the number is represented as the binary equivalent of \(0.9999999999999999\).

For this reason, the machine precision is said to be roughly \(10^{-15.95}\). This constant is available as machine_precision() in Stan.

Complementary and epsilon functions

Special operations are available to mitigate this problem with numbers rounding when they get close to one. For example, consider the operation log(1 + x) for positive x. When x is small (less than \(10^{-16}\) for double-precision floating point), the sum in the argument will round to 1 and the result will round to zero. To allow more granularity, programming languages provide a library function directly implementing \(f(x) = \log (1 + x)\). In Stan (as in C++), this operation is written as log1p(x). Because x itself may be close to zero, the function log1p(x) can take the logarithm of values very close to one, the results of which are close to zero.

Similarly, the complementary cumulative distribution functions (CCDF), defined by \(F^{\complement}_Y(y) = 1 - F_Y(y)\), where \(F_Y\) is the cumulative distribution function (CDF) for the random variable \(Y\). This allows values very close to one to be represented in complementary form.

Catastrophic cancellation

Another downside to floating point representations is that subtraction of two numbers close to each other results in a loss of precision that depends on how close they are. This is easy to see in practice. Consider \[\begin{align*} 1&.23456789012345 \\ - 1&.23456789012344 \\ = 0&.00000000000001 \end{align*}\] We start with fifteen decimal places of accuracy in the arguments and are left with a single decimal place of accuracy in the result.

Catastrophic cancellation arises in statistical computations whenever we calculate variance for a distribution with small standard deviations relative to its location. When calculating summary statistics, Stan uses Welford’s algorithm for computing variances. This avoids catastrophic cancellation and may also be carried out in a single pass.


Even though 1e200 may be represented as a double precision floating point value, there is no finite value large enough to represent 1e200 * 1e200. The result of 1e200 * 1e200 is said to overflow. The IEEE 754 standard requires the result to be positive infinity.

Overflow is rarely a problem in statistical computations. If it is, it’s possible to work on the log scale, just as for underflow as described below.

Underflow and the log scale

When there is no number small enough to represent a result, it is said to underflow. For instance, 1e-200 may be represented, but 1e-200 * 1e-200 underflows so that the result is zero.

Underflow is a ubiquitous problem in likelihood calculations, For example, if \(p(y_n \mid \theta) < 0.1\), then \[ p(y \mid \theta) = \prod_{n=1}^N p(y_n \mid \theta) \] will underflow as soon as \(N > 350\) or so.

To deal with underflow, work on the log scale. Even though \(p(y \mid \theta)\) can’t be represented, there is no problem representing \[ \begin{array}{rcl} \log p(y \mid \theta) & = & \log \prod_{n=1}^N p(y_n \mid \theta) \\[4pt] & = & \sum_{n = 1}^N \log p(y_n \mid \theta) \end{array} \]

This is why all of Stan’s probability functions operate on the log scale.

Log sum of exponentials

Working on the log scale, multiplication is converted to addition, \[ \log (a \cdot b) = \log a + \log b. \] Thus sequences of multiplication operations can remain on the log scale. But what about addition? Given \(\log a\) and \(\log b\), how do we get \(\log (a + b)\)? Working out the algebra, \[ \log (a + b) = \log (\exp(\log a) + \exp(\log b)). \]

Log-sum-exp function

The nested log of sum of exponentials is so common, it has its own name, “log-sum-exp”, \[ \textrm{log-sum-exp}(u, v) = \log (\exp(u) + \exp(v)). \] so that \[ \log (a + b) = \textrm{log-sum-exp}(\log a, \log b). \]

Although it appears this might overflow as soon as exponentiation is introduced, evaluation does not proceed by evaluating the terms as written. Instead, with a little algebra, the terms are rearranged into a stable form, \[ \textrm{log-sum-exp}(u, v) = \max(u, v) + \log\big( \exp(u - \max(u, v)) + \exp(v - \max(u, v)) \big). \]

Because the terms inside the exponentiations are \(u - \max(u, v)\) and \(v - \max(u, v)\), one will be zero and the other will be negative. Because the operation is symmetric, it may be assumed without loss of generality that \(u \geq v\), so that \[ \textrm{log-sum-exp}(u, v) = u + \log\big(1 + \exp(v - u)\big). \]

Although the inner term may itself be evaluated using the built-in function log1p, there is only limited gain because \(\exp(v - u)\) is only near zero when \(u\) is much larger than \(v\), meaning the final result is likely to round to \(u\) anyway.

To conclude, when evaluating \(\log (a + b)\) given \(\log a\) and \(\log b\), and assuming \(\log a > \log b\), return

\[ \log (a + b) = \log a + \textrm{log1p}\big(\exp(\log b - \log a)\big). \]

Applying log-sum-exp to a sequence

The log sum of exponentials function may be generalized to sequences in the obvious way, so that if \(v = v_1, \ldots, v_N\), then \[\begin{eqnarray*} \textrm{log-sum-exp}(v) & = & \log \sum_{n = 1}^N \exp(v_n) \\[4pt] & = & \max(v) + \log \sum_{n = 1}^N \exp(v_n - \max(v)). \end{eqnarray*}\] The exponent cannot overflow because its argument is either zero or negative. This form makes it easy to calculate \(\log (u_1 + \cdots + u_N)\) given only \(\log u_n\).

Calculating means with log-sum-exp

An immediate application is to computing the mean of a vector \(u\) entirely on the log scale. That is, given \(\log u\) and returning \(\log \textrm{mean}(u)\). \[\begin{eqnarray*} \log \left( \frac{1}{N} \sum_{n = 1}^N u_n \right) & = & \log \frac{1}{N} + \log \sum_{n = 1}^N \exp(\log u_n) \\[4pt] & = & -\log N + \textrm{log-sum-exp}(\log u). \end{eqnarray*}\] where \(\log u = (\log u_1, \ldots, \log u_N)\) is understood elementwise.

Comparing floating-point numbers

Because floating-point representations are inexact, it is rarely a good idea to test exact inequality. The general recommendation is that rather than testing x == y, an approximate test may be used given an absolute or relative tolerance.

Given a positive absolute tolerance of epsilon, x can be compared to y using the conditional

abs(x - y) <= epsilon.

Absolute tolerances work when the scale of x and y and the relevant comparison is known.

Given a positive relative tolerance of epsilon, a typical comparison is

2 * abs(x - y) / (abs(x) + abs(y)) <= epsilon.
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  1. The notable exception is Intel’s optimizing compilers under certain optimization settings.↩︎