Python quantities

I’ve been doing a lot of calculations in both SI and US Customary Units recently. Normally, I can do the conversions at the end of a set of calculations, and the venerable units program works just fine for me. But in my current project, I need to show intermediate results in both sets of units and there’s just too much busy work in going back and forth between IPython, which I’m using as my calculator, and units. After a bit of hunting, I found the Python quantities module—it’s a bit more cumbersome than units if you’re just doing a few conversions, but it’s much better if you’re doing a long series of calculations.

Before I get into quantities, a word of warning: I’m going to be much less tolerant of SI-absolutist comments on this post than I was a month ago. I certainly prefer to work primarily in one system or the other, but that isn’t an option on this project, so comments that even vaguely suggest I shouldn’t be using US Customary Units will be deleted.

I installed quantities via

sudo pip install quantities

and the installation went smoothly on both Lion and Mountain Lion. It’s built on NumPy, so if you don’t have that installed already, your installation may not be as trouble-free as mine was.

I’ve been importing quantities this way:

In [1]: import quantities as q

This prevents the many, many unit names in quantities from polluting my namespace, but gives me access to them with only a little extra typing.

The easiest way to define a variable with both a value and a unit is through multiplication by the unit:

In [2]: F = 525*q.lbf

In [3]: h = 3.15*q.inch

In [4]: w = 1.75*q.inch

In [5]: stress = F/(h*w)

In [6]: stress
Out[6]: array(95.23809523809524) * lbf/in**2

This example shows a couple of things to keep in mind if, like me, you do a lot of mechanics problems:

Converting units is easy:

In [8]: stress.units = q.kPa

In [9]: stress
Out[9]: array(656.6435517303199) * kPa

From now on, stress will be reported in kilopascals. If you want it back in US Customary Units,

In [10]: stress.units = q.psi

In [11]: stress
Out[11]: array(95.23809523809524) * psi

will do the trick. By the way, if you’re put off by the array() stuff, just use print:

In [12]: print stress
95.2380952381 psi

It’s a bit more typing, but the output is nicer.

What happens if you have a mixture of units? That depends. Although the documentation says that in ambiguous cases, quantities doesn’t guess your intention, I find that sometimes it does.

In [13]: b = 36*

In [14]: h+b
Out[14]: array(4.567322834645669) * in

In [15]: b+h
Out[15]: array(116.01) * mm

Here, it’s obviously using the units of the first term to decide which one to use for the sum. But in this case,

In [18]: F/(b*h)
Out[18]: array(4.62962962962963) * lbf/(mm*in)

it decided not to decide. When there’s a mix of units of the same type like this, simplified will unmix them, substituting the SI unit for each.

In [19]: F/(b*h).simplified
Out[19]: array(182268.88305628463) * lbf/m**2

As you can see, simplified doesn’t change units that aren’t mixed, so the lbf remains. If you prefer different default units, you can change them.

In [20]: q.set_default_units(length='mm')

In [21]: F/(b*h).simplified
Out[21]: array(0.18226888305628464) * lbf/mm**2

There are other quantities tricks, which you can read about in the documentation, but this is a decent start.