First, lets start python. We will do everything using ipython, which provides a nice interactive python shell. We start ipython using the command


Writing a program involves creating and manipulating data, which are held in variables. For example, you have probably used strings and numbers, for example, in your open ipython session, type;

a = 42
b = 65
print(a + b)

You should see that this prints out 107. Equally, next type;

a = "hello "
b = "world"
print(a + b)

This should print out hello world (note we had to add an extra space after hello).

Typing and working with variables one-by-one like this is easy, but would be very time-consuming and prone to error if you have a program that uses thousands or millions of variables. Containers allow you to group variables together. The simplest container is a list.

Lists provide a simple list of variables. In python, we create lists using square brackets. In your open ipython session type;

a = [ "cat", "dog", "horse", "fish" ]

This has created a list containing four strings, cat, dog, horse and fish. To access each item we also use square brackets. Now type;

print( a[0] )

This will print cat, as it accesses the first item in the list. Now type;

print( a[1] )

This will print dog, as it accesses the second item in the list. As you can probably guess, a[3] will print fish as it accesses the fourth item. Try it now;

print( a[3] )

In python, you can also work from the back of the list, e.g. try typing;

print( a[-1] )

This will print the last item, fish, while if you type;

print( a[-2] )

it will print the second to last item, horse. If you access an item that doesn’t exist, then you get an error. Try this, by typing;

print( a[4] )

You should see that ipython will print an index out of range error.

To get the number of items in the list, we have to use len. Type;

print( len(a) )

This prints 4, as we have four things in the list.

We can also change the value of an item by setting it equal to a new value. Try this by typing;

a[0] = "gerbil"
print( a )

This should have printed

["gerbil", "dog", "horse", "fish"]

Functions of a List

A list comes with lots of useful abilities. You can see the list of abilities in ipython by pressing tab. Type a. followed by the tab key, e.g.


You should see the following appear;

a.append   a.count    a.extend   a.index    a.insert   a.pop      a.remove   a.reverse  a.sort

The abilities are provided by functions, for example append. We can see what the function does by using python’s help. Get the help on the append function by typing;


You should see something like;

Help on built-in function append:

    L.append(object) -- append object to end

(press q to exit from the help)

So append is used to add items onto the end of the list. For example type;


You should see printed;

['gerbil', 'dog', 'horse', 'fish', 'antelope']

The append function has added the string “antelope” onto the end of the list. There are other functions, e.g. try typing


and you will see that dog has been removed, e.g.

['gerbil', 'horse', 'fish', 'antelope']

### Looping over a list

You can iterate over all items in a list using a loop, for example, try typing into the same ipython session;

for i in range(0, len(a)):
    print( a[i] )

This will print;


This can be useful, for example, for adding together two sets of numbers. Try typing this;

x = [ 1, 2, 3, 4 ]
y = [ 5, 6, 7, 8 ]
z = []

for i in range(0, len(x)):
    z.append( x[i] + y[i] )


You should see that z now contains the sum of a and b, e.g.

[6, 8, 10, 12]

Nesting lists

Lists can contain a mixture of any type of data. For example, you can mix numbers and strings. Try typing;

a = [ "cat", 15, 6.5 ]

will print out;

['cat', 15, 6.5]

Lists can also contain other lists, for example, to create a matrix type;

matrix = [ [1,2,3,4], [5,6,7,8], [9,10,11,12] ]

will print out;

[[1, 2, 3, 4], [5, 6, 7, 8], [9, 10, 11, 12]]

This is called “nesting” one list inside another. Accessing the sub-list, or items within it is easy, e.g. type;


will output

[5, 6, 7, 8]

while typing;


will print the number 7.

You can nest lists as deeply as you want, creating a multidimensional matrix. Try this;

matrix = [ [ [ [ [ 5 ] ] ] ] ]
print( matrix[0][0][0][0][0] )

will print the number 5.

Strings as lists

Note that strings are actually lists. A string is a list container of letters. You can see this by typing;

a = "hello world"
print( len(a) )
print( a[0] )
print( a[-1] )

You should have seen printed 11, followed by h, followed by d.

We can loop over all letters in a string using;

for i in range(0,len(a)):

You should see that this prints each letter, with one letter per line, e.g.


Python provides a nice shorthand for looping over every item in a list. Typing;

for letter in a:

will print the same output.

You can also create a string from a list of letters. Type this;

a = ['h', 'e', 'l', 'l', 'o']
s = "".join(a)

This should print

['h', 'e', 'l', 'l', 'o']

followed by


If you want to join the letters together, with each letter separated by spaces, use;

s = " ".join(a)

would print

h e l l o

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