# 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:

• Like units, quantities thinks of pounds (lb) as a unit of mass, not of force. For pounds as a force, use lbf.
• The natural way to assign units of inches, in, doesn’t work, presumably because the quantities developers didn’t want to risk a conflict with Python’s in keyword. Oddly, though, if you ask to see a value in inches, the response will use in:

In [7]: h
Out[7]: array(3.15) * in

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*q.mm

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.

## 8 Responses to “Python quantities”

1. Clark says:

That’s cool. I didn’t even know about that module. While I prefer metric the reality is that most of the measures I deal with are in classic units. Modules like this are a savior.

2. I dream of a programming language that would natively support measurement units (be they predefined or user-definable).

That would allow implicit or explicit unit conversions but also, more importantly, checking the dimensional compatibility of expression.

Like:

float [m/s/s] a= 9.81 [m/s/s]; float [m/s] v0= 3 [m/s]; float [m] e= 0.5 * a * t * t + v0 * t + 3; - Dimension error: term ‘3’ should be in [m] !

3. I dream of a programming language that would natively support measurement units (be they predefined or user-definable).

That would allow implicit or explicit unit conversions but also, more importantly, checking the dimensional compatibility of expressions.

Like:

float [m/s/s] a= 9.81 [m/s/s]; float [m/s] v0= 3 [m/s]; float [m] e= 0.5 * a * t * t + v0 * t + 3; - Dimension error: term ‘3’ should be in [m] !

4. Alex says:

Strictly speaking, any strongly-typed language will let you create a library which enforces such things. Depending on the language, you may need a greater or lesser amount of boilerplate in the consuming code.

5. m0sa says:

@Yves F# supports units of measure out of the box: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/andrewkennedy/archive/2008/09/02/units-of-measure-in-f-part-two-unit-conversions.aspx

6. Chris says:

Another nice units module is Unum. I have been using it lately for mechanics problems as well. By default, mainly SI units are defined. But, it is easy to add whatever units you want.

http://home.scarlet.be/be052320/Unum.html

7. Chris, thanks for the link to Unum. I saw its name when I was searching for a units library, but I forgot to follow up on it. Looks every bit as capable as quantities, but I like having lots of units predefined.

8. Clark says:

Only problem with quantities is that it has dependencies on NumPy which in turn requires Fortran. I was going to put it on my iPhone when I noticed that. I may give Unum a look.