The goals for this chapter are as follows:

What Is Recursion?

Recursion is a method of solving problems that involves breaking a problem down into smaller and smaller subproblems until you get to a small enough problem that it can be solved trivially. Usually recursion involves a function calling itself. While it may not seem like much on the surface, recursion allows us to write elegant solutions to problems that may otherwise be very difficult to program.

Calculating the Sum of a List of Numbers

We will begin our investigation with a simple problem that you already know how to solve without using recursion. Suppose that you want to calculate the sum of a list of numbers such as: \([1, 3, 5, 7, 9]\). An iterative function that computes the sum is shown in ActiveCode 1. The function uses an accumulator variable (theSum) to compute a running total of all the numbers in the list by starting with \(0\) and adding each number in the list.

Iterative Summation (lst_itsum)

Pretend for a minute that you do not have while loops or for loops. How would you compute the sum of a list of numbers? If you were a mathematician you might start by recalling that addition is a function that is defined for two parameters, a pair of numbers. To redefine the problem from adding a list to adding pairs of numbers, we could rewrite the list as a fully parenthesized expression. Such an expression looks like this:

\[((((1 + 3) + 5) + 7) + 9)\]

We can also parenthesize the expression the other way around,

\[(1 + (3 + (5 + (7 + 9))))\]

Notice that the innermost set of parentheses, \((7 + 9)\), is a problem that we can solve without a loop or any special constructs. In fact, we can use the following sequence of simplifications to compute a final sum.

\[\begin{split}total = \ (1 + (3 + (5 + (7 + 9)))) \\ total = \ (1 + (3 + (5 + 16))) \\ total = \ (1 + (3 + 21)) \\ total = \ (1 + 24) \\ total = \ 25\end{split}\]

How can we take this idea and turn it into a Python program? First, let’s restate the sum problem in terms of Python lists. We might say the the sum of the list numList is the sum of the first element of the list (numList[0]), and the sum of the numbers in the rest of the list (numList[1:]). To state it in a functional form:

\[ listSum(numList) = first(numList) + listSum(rest(numList)) \label{eqn:listsum}\]

In this equation \(first(numList)\) returns the first element of the list and \(rest(numList)\) returns a list of everything but the first element. This is easily expressed in Python as shown in ActiveCode 2.

Recursive Summation (lst_recsum)

There are a few key ideas in this listing to look at. First, on line 2 we are checking to see if the list is one element long. This check is crucial and is our escape clause from the function. The sum of a list of length 1 is trivial; it is just the number in the list. Second, on line 5 our function calls itself! This is the reason that we call the listsum algorithm recursive. A recursive function is a function that calls itself.

Figure 1 shows the series of recursive calls that are needed to sum the list \([1, 3, 5, 7, 9]\). You should think of this series of calls as a series of simplifications. Each time we make a recursive call we are solving a smaller problem, until we reach the point where the problem cannot get any smaller.


Figure 1: Series of Recursive Calls Adding a List of Numbers

When we reach the point where the problem is as simple as it can get, we begin to piece together the solutions of each of the small problems until the initial problem is solved. Figure 2 shows the additions that are performed as listsum works its way backward through the series of calls. When listsum returns from the topmost problem, we have the solution to the whole problem.


Figure2: Series of Recursive Returns from Adding a List of Numbers

The Three Laws of Recursion

Like the robots of Asimov, all recursive algorithms must obey three important laws:

  1. A recursive algorithm must have a base case.
  2. A recursive algorithm must change its state and move toward the base case.
  3. A recursive algorithm must call itself, recursively.

Let’s look at each one of these laws in more detail and see how it was used in the listsum algorithm. First, a base case is the condition that allows the algorithm to stop recursing. A base case is typically a problem that is small enough to solve directly. In the listsum algorithm the base case is a list of length 1.

To obey the second law, we must arrange for a change of state that moves the algorithm toward the base case. A change of state means that some data that the algorithm is using is modified. Usually the data that represents our problem gets smaller in some way. In the listsum algorithm our primary data structure is a list, so we must focus our state-changing efforts on the list. Since the base case is a list of length 1, a natural progression toward the base case is to shorten the list. This is exactly what happens on line 5 of ActiveCode 2 when we call listsum with a shorter list.

The final law is that the algorithm must call itself. This is the very definition of recursion. Recursion is a confusing concept to many beginning programmers. As a novice programmer, you have learned that functions are good because you can take a large problem and break it up into smaller problems. The smaller problems can be solved by writing a function to solve each problem. When we talk about recursion it may seem that we are talking ourselves in circles. We have a problem to solve with a function, but that function solves the problem by calling itself! But the logic is not circular at all; the logic of recursion is an elegant expression of solving a problem by breaking it down into a smaller and easier problems.

In the remainder of this chapter we will look at more examples of recursion. In each case we will focus on designing a solution to a problem by using the three laws of recursion.

Self Check

rec-1: How many recursive calls are made when computing the sum of the list [2,4,6,8,10]?

rec-2: Suppose you are going to write a recusive function to calculate the factorial of a number. fact(n) returns n * n-1 * n-2 * ... Where the factorial of zero is definded to be 1. What would be the most appropriate base case?

Converting an Integer to a String in Any Base

Suppose you want to convert an integer to a string in some base between binary and hexadecimal. For example, convert the integer 10 to its string representation in decimal as "10", or to its string representation in binary as "1010". While there are many algorithms to solve this problem, including the algorithm discussed in the stack section, the recursive formulation of the problem is very elegant.

Let’s look at a concrete example using base 10 and the number 769. Suppose we have a sequence of characters corresponding to the first 10 digits, like convString = "0123456789". It is easy to convert a number less than 10 to its string equivalent by looking it up in the sequence. For example, if the number is 9, then the string is convString[9] or "9". If we can arrange to break up the number 769 into three single-digit numbers, 7, 6, and 9, then converting it to a string is simple. A number less than 10 sounds like a good base case.

Knowing what our base is suggests that the overall algorithm will involve three components:

  1. Reduce the original number to a series of single-digit numbers.
  2. Convert the single digit-number to a string using a lookup.
  3. Concatenate the single-digit strings together to form the final result.

The next step is to figure out how to change state and make progress toward the base case. Since we are working with an integer, let’s consider what mathematical operations might reduce a number. The most likely candidates are division and subtraction. While subtraction might work, it is unclear what we should subtract from what. Integer division with remainders gives us a clear direction. Let’s look at what happens if we divide a number by the base we are trying to convert to.

Using integer division to divide 769 by 10, we get 76 with a remainder of 9. This gives us two good results. First, the remainder is a number less than our base that can be converted to a string immediately by lookup. Second, we get a number that is smaller than our original and moves us toward the base case of having a single number less than our base. Now our job is to convert 76 to its string representation. Again we will use integer division plus remainder to get results of 7 and 6 respectively. Finally, we have reduced the problem to converting 7, which we can do easily since it satisfies the base case condition of \(n < base\), where \(base = 10\). The series of operations we have just performed is illustrated in Figure 3. Notice that the numbers we want to remember are in the remainder boxes along the right side of the diagram.


Figure 3: Converting an Integer to a String in Base 10

ActiveCode 3 shows the Python code that implements the algorithm outlined above for any base between 2 and 16.

Recursively Converting from Integer to String (lst_rectostr)

Notice that in line 3 we check for the base case where n is less than the base we are converting to. When we detect the base case, we stop recursing and simply return the string from the convertString sequence. In line 6 we satisfy both the second and third laws–by making the recursive call and by reducing the problem size–using division.

Let’s trace the algorithm again; this time we will convert the number 10 to its base 2 string representation ("1010").


Figure 4: Converting the Number 10 to its Base 2 String Representation

Figure 4 shows that we get the results we are looking for, but it looks like the digits are in the wrong order. The algorithm works correctly because we make the recursive call first on line 6, then we add the string representation of the remainder. If we reversed returning the convertString lookup and returning the toStr call, the resulting string would be backward! But by delaying the concatenation operation until after the recursive call has returned, we get the result in the proper order. This should remind you of our discussion of stacks back in the previous chapter.

Self Check

Write a function that takes a string as a parameter and returns a new string that is the reverse of the old string.


Write a function that takes a string as a parameter and returns True if the string is a palindrome, False otherwise. Remember that a string is a palindrome if it is spelled the same both forward and backward. for example: radar is a palindrome. for bonus points palindromes can also be phrases, but you need to remove the spaces and punctuation before checking. for example: madam i’m adam is a palindrome. Other fun palindromes include:

  • kayak
  • aibohphobia
  • Live not on evil
  • Reviled did I live, said I, as evil I did deliver
  • Go hang a salami; I’m a lasagna hog.
  • Able was I ere I saw Elba
  • Kanakanak – a town in Alaska
  • Wassamassaw – a town in South Dakota


Stack Frames: Implementing Recursion

Suppose that instead of concatenating the result of the recursive call to toStr with the string from convertString, we modified our algorithm to push the strings onto a stack prior to making the recursive call. The code for this modified algorithm is shown in ActiveCode 6.

Converting an Integer to a String Using a Stack (lst_recstack)

Each time we make a call to toStr, we push a character on the stack. Returning to the previous example we can see that after the fourth call to toStr the stack would look like Figure 5. Notice that now we can simply pop the characters off the stack and concatenate them into the final result, "1010".


Figure 5: Strings Placed on the Stack During Conversion

The previous example gives us some insight into how Python implements a recursive function call. When a function is called in Python, a stack frame is allocated to handle the local variables of the function. When the function returns, the return value is left on top of the stack for the calling function to access. Figure 6 illustrates the call stack after the return statement on line 4.


Figure 6: Call Stack Generated from toStr(10,2)

Notice that the call to toStr(2//2,2) leaves a return value of "1" on the stack. This return value is then used in place of the function call (toStr(1,2)) in the expression "1" + convertString[2%2], which will leave the string "10" on the top of the stack. In this way, the Python call stack takes the place of the stack we used explicitly in Listing 4. In our list summing example, you can think of the return value on the stack taking the place of an accumulator variable.

The stack frames also provide a scope for the variables used by the function. Even though we are calling the same function over and over, each call creates a new scope for the variables that are local to the function.

If you keep this idea of the stack in your head, you will find it much easier to write a proper recursive function.