Demystifying Floating Points
Floating points are a way of representing numbers based on the idea that the larger the magnitude of a number, the less we care about knowing its precise value. If you’re anything like me (until recently) you use floating points regularly in your code with a rough understanding of what to expect, but don’t understand the specifics of what floats can and can’t represent. For example what’s the biggest floating point, or the smallest positive floating point? Or how many times can you add 1.0 to a floating point before something bad happens, and what is that something bad? How many floating point values are there between 0 and 1? What about between 1 and 2?
The answer to these questions is, of course, “it depends”, so let’s talk about a
specific floating point standard, the “binary32” type defined in IEEE 754-2008.
This is the commonly-found single-precision floating point type, which
f32 type in rust, and usually backs the
float type in c
(though of course technically this is left unspecified).
From now on this this post, I will refer to this type as simply “float”.
Here’s what a float can represent:
- all powers of 2 from 2^-126 to 2^127
- for each consecutive pair of powers of 2, there are 8,388,607 (that’s 2^23 - 1) additional numbers, evenly spaced apart
- negative versions of all of the above
The second point is the most important for understanding floating points. Each successive pair of powers of 2 has 2^23 - 1 floating point values evenly spread out between them. There are 2^23 - 1 floats between 0.125 and 0.25, between 1 and 2, between 1024 and 2048, and between 8,388,608 (2^23) and 16,777,216 (2^24). As the numeric range between consecutive powers of 2 increases, the number of floats between them stays the same at 2^23 - 1; the floats just get more spread out. This is the reason that values with lower magnitudes can be more precisely represented with floating points.
Some implications of this:
- in between 1 and 2, consecutive float values are 2^-23 apart from one another
- in between 2 and 4, consecutive float values are 2^-22 apart from another
- in between 8,388,608 (2^23) and 16,777,216 (2^24), consecutive float values are 1 apart from one another
- for each power of 2, there are 8,388,608 (2^23) floats (1 for the power of 2, and 2^23 - 1 between (exclusive) the power of 2 and the next power of 2)
- the number of positive floats less than 1 is 126 x 2^23 = 1,056,964,608
- there are 126 powers of 2 less than 1
- the number of positive floats greater than or equal to 1 is 128 x 2^23 = 1,073,741,824
- there are 128 powers of 2 greater than or equal to 1 (including 2^0 = 1)
- all floats above 8,388,608 (2^23) are integers
- all floats above 16,777,216 (2^24) are even
- if you attempt to add 1 to 16,777,216 (2^24), the result will be 16,777,216 (2^24)
Here’s how floats are encoded:
- the sign bit determines if a number is positive or negative (0 means positive, 1 means negative).
- the exponent determines the highest power of 2 less than or equal to the float’s value. E.g., if the exponent is 7, the float will be greater than or equal to 2^7, and less than 2^8. The exponent is encoded as a “biased integer”. To compute its value, treat it as an unsigned 8-bit integer, and subtract 127. The literal values 0 and 255 are treated specially to represent floats whose values are zero and infinity respectively. Thus the minimum value for the exponent is 1 - 127 = -126, and the maximum value is 254 - 127 = 127.
- the fraction determines precisely where the value lies between 2^exponent and 2^(exponent+1). It’s a 23-bit integer, and thus can have 2^23 different values. If it’s 0, then the float is a power of 2 (2^exponent). Otherwise, it’s one of the 2^23 - 1 values between the “current” power of 2 (2^exponent) and the next one.
So putting all this together, assuming the literal value of the exponent is inclusively between 1 and 254, the formula giving the value of a float is:
(-1)^sign x 2^(exponent - 127) x (1 + (fraction / 2^23))
Breaking down each part:
(-1)^signis 1 if the sign is 0, and -1 if the sign is 1
2^(exponent-127)raises 2 to the power of the exponent after applying the bias of -127
(1 + (fraction / 2^23))linearly interpolate between 1 and 2 based on the fraction (which is always between 0 and 2^23 - 1). Since multiplying the current power of 2 by 2 will yield the next power of 2, multiplying the current power of 2 by a number between 1 and 2 will give a value in between the current power of 2 and the next power of 2.