Python: Converting decimals to imperial fractions
For my blog (the one that you’re currently reading) I wanted to implement an automatic conversion from metric to imperial for all measurements that I mention in my posts. This would help readers from the US to understand them more easily and (probably the more relevant reason) be a nice programming task for me. While I plan to publish the full implementation and write a post about it, this post focuses on a small part of the task: converting decimal values into nice fractions with a denominator that is a power of two.
Why powers of two? Well, you better ask this question someone who actually uses the imperial system, but my impression is that those fractions are most commonly used for measurements (like 3/4″). So how can we solve this problem in Python? Let’s start with an example to better understand it:
Imagine that the input number we want to convert is $1.26$. This number is larger than one, so our first step is to subtract the whole part, leaving us with the fractional part $0.26$ and the whole part $1$, which we remember for later. We then want to express $0.26$ as a fraction $a/b$ where $b$ is a power of two, i.e. 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, and so on. It’s also a good idea to keep $b$ as low as possible—we don’t want e.g. 32/64 as our result instead of the much simpler and nicer 1/2—and therefore we start by assuming our denominator $b = 2$, which means $a/b = a/2 = 0.26$ and, after multiplying both sides by two, $a = 0.52$. But of course we want a nice whole number for $a$, so by rounding we get $\hat{a} = 1$ and a result of 1/2. That’s not a very good result, right? If we convert 1/2 back to decimals we get $0.5$ which is pretty far away from our original number $0.26$. So let’s see if using 4 as the denominator gives a better result:
$\begin{aligned} a/b &= a/4 = 0.26 \\ a &= 1.04 \approx 1 \end{aligned}$
Our new result is 1/4, and if we convert that back we get $0.25$. I think that’s close enough. But how can our algorithm know if we’re close enough or not? I decided to use a maximum relative error: if the difference between original and converted value is less than 10 % of the original value that’s good enough for me. After all our use case here is just to give people who aren’t familiar with the metric system a rough impression on what sizes we’re talking about.
But wait, we’re not done yet. We have to add the whole part that we subtracted in the first step again, which gives us 1 1/4 as the full result. Now let’s look at the code I came up with:
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Yes, I know that the return None is not necessary, but I wanted to make it clear that the function might not always return a result. Now we can try it with some values:
>>> decimal2fraction(1.26)
(1, 1, 4)
# Nice, same result as we got with our manual calculation.
>>> decimal2fraction(0.59)
(0, 5, 8)
# 5/8 = 0.625, that's around 6% error
>>> decimal2fraction(0.99)
(0, 2, 2)
# Wait, isn't there an easier way to write 2/2?
>>> decimal2fraction(1.01)
(1, 0, 2)
# Hmm, that also looks a bit weird...
Okay, as you can see from the last two examples we’re not quite there yet. We need to handle the two special cases where the numerator is equal to the denominator (which means we can simply add one to the whole part and leave out the fraction) and where the numerator is zero (which means we can simply leave out the fraction). I decided to return None for both the numerator and denominator if there’s no fractional part to return. Here’s the code (new parts marked in yellow):
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And now the results look better:
>>> decimal2fraction(0.99)
(1, None, None)
>>> decimal2fraction(1.01)
(1, None, None)
That’s it, but as I mentioned there will be a post about the complete unit conversion sooner or later.