This is a short story of one of my first encounters in Python when doing some arithmetic with decimal numbers gave me wrong answers. In the end, I was able to solve my problem using Python’s decimal module and learn a bit about the computer does this arithmetic.

The problem

I was doing a math exercise where I needed a fast way of computing the the Nth fibonacci number. This is a famous sequence of integers that most people learn about when they are learning how to write a recursive function. This is one way you can compute these numbers in Python.

def fib(n):
    if n < 2:
        return n
        return fib(n - 1) + fib(n - 2)

And you will get the numbers

>>> fib(1)  # the first fibonacci number
>>> fib(2)  # the second fibonacci number
>>> fib(3)

However, it is slow and I don’t have the time to wait for it to compute fib(10000) (not to mention in Python this gives a RuntimeError: maximum recursion depth exceeded because you can only recurse so far into functions).

Luckily there is an explicit formula that computes the these numbers without needing the previous fibonacci numbers. This was the function I was using.


And here it is in Python:

from math import sqrt

# some constants we'll use
SQ5 = sqrt(5)  
PHI = (1 + SQ5)/2

def fib(n):
	return int(((PHI ** n) / SQ5) + 0.5) 

The problem was, it started to give the wrong answer when I asked for bigger fibonacci numbers

>>> fib(78)
8944394323791488   # not actually the 78th fibonacci number!

The 78th fibonacci number should actually be 8944394323791464.

The underlying problem

The problem comes from using that square root of 5. It’s an infinite decimal number (that doesn’t even repeat!). It’s roughly 2.23606797749978969640917366873127623...

But, this is how Python sees it.

>>> sqrt(5)

That’s the short version of the underlying problem 1, but I was just concerned about getting the right answer.

A solution

decimal is the standard module to use when you want Python to write out more of the digits of your number. For example,

with floats…

>>> from math import sqrt
>>> sqrt(5)

with the decimal library

>>> from decimal import Decimal
>>> decimal.getcontext().prec = 100  # this is how many digits we want to see
>>> five = Decimal(5)
>>> five
>>> Decimal.sqrt(five)

Back to the function fib, we have to now rewrite it so it does computations with the Decimal object rather than Python’s builtin float object.

Here is the rewrite:

import decimal
from decimal import Decimal
decimal.getcontext().prec = 100

def fib(n):
	SQ5_d = Decimal.sqrt(Decimal(5))
	PHI_d = (Decimal(1) + SQ5_d) / Decimal(2)
	return int( ((PHI_d**n)/SQ5_d) + Decimal(0.5) )  

The tricky part is setting the “precision”, which is the line decimal.getcontext().prec = 100.

However, I didn’t know how many digits I needed. But because I already knew some of the fibonacci numbers, I could test different settings for decimal.getcontext().prec to see what I precision I would at least need for them. Then I could extrapolate for bigger fibonacci numbers.

So, starting with the correct fibonacci numbers up to the first 50, I find the first precision that gives the right answer. Then by plotting the results, I can determine the relationship of how much precision I need for bigger numbers.

# first set the precision really high to get the first 50 correct values
decimal.getcontext().prec = 100

CORRECT = [ fib(n) for n in range(100) ] 

# first number precision correct for each
min_prec = 1
for e,correct_fib in enumerate(CORRECT):
	# find first min prec for that number
	decimal.getcontext().prec = min_prec
	guess = fib(e)
	while guess != correct_fib:
		min_prec += 1
		decimal.getcontext().prec = min_prec
		guess = fib(e)

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
import pandas as pd 

ser = pd.Series(MIN_PREC)
ax = ser.plot(title='decimal precision needed for Nth fibonacci number')
ax.axes.set_xlabel('Nth fibonacci number')
ax.axes.set_ylabel('minimum precision required')

fib precision

It looks like it is roughly a ratio of 4:1 for number of fibonacci numbers for each new decimal of precision. I did a quick sanity check on the fibonacci number I got wrong with my float-based fib function:

>>> decimal.getcontext().prec = 20
>>> fib(78) 
8944394323791464 # Correct!!!

For my purposes, I needed to get to roughly the 10,000th fibonacci number, so to be safe I used a precision of 2500.

>>> decimal.getcontext().prec = 2500
>>> fib(10000)
33644764876431783266621612005107543310302148460680063906564769974680081442166662368155595513633734025582065332680836159373734790483865268263040892463056431887354544369559827491606602099884183933864652731300088830269235673613135117579297437854413752130520504347701602264758318906527890855154366159582987279682987510631200575428783453215515103870818298969791613127856265033195487140214287532698187962046936097879900350962302291026368131493195275630227837628441540360584402572114334961180023091208287046088923962328835461505776583271252546093591128203925285393434620904245248929403901706233888991085841065183173360437470737908552631764325733993712871937587746897479926305837065742830161637408969178426378624212835258112820516370298089332099905707920064367426202389783111470054074998459250360633560933883831923386783056136435351892133279732908133732642652633989763922723407882928177953580570993691049175470808931841056146322338217465637321248226383092103297701648054726243842374862411453093812206564914032751086643394517512161526545361333111314042436854805106765843493523836959653428071768775328348234345557366719731392746273629108210679280784718035329131176778924659089938635459327894523777674406192240337638674004021330343297496902028328145933418826817683893072003634795623117103101291953169794607632737589253530772552375943788434504067715555779056450443016640119462580972216729758615026968443146952034614932291105970676243268515992834709891284706740862008587135016260312071903172086094081298321581077282076353186624611278245537208532365305775956430072517744315051539600905168603220349163222640885248852433158051534849622434848299380905070483482449327453732624567755879089187190803662058009594743150052402532709746995318770724376825907419939632265984147498193609285223945039707165443156421328157688908058783183404917434556270520223564846495196112460268313970975069382648706613264507665074611512677522748621598642530711298441182622661057163515069260029861704945425047491378115154139941550671256271197133252763631939606902895650288268608362241082050562430701794976171121233066073310059947366875L    #... I think ;)


For me, the main takeaways here are

  1. Be wary of arithmetic with floats, ALWAYS
  2. When you need to do it, try some library with arbitary precision in your language (for Python, that’s usually decimal, though there are others)
  3. When using arbitary precision decimals, get a feel for how MUCH precision you really need.

In my next post, I’ll go over a similar situation with floating point arithmetic that has an entirely different takeaway: Avoid floating point arithmetic.


  1. A better introduction into what a computer does with decimal numbers can be found here and for a more detailed document, read this