Reflection on floats

Gordon Weakliem writes about literal hash-table syntax, and touches on some of the problems that programmers run in to with floating-point numbers. He writes:

12 years ago, I spent half a day in the debugger trying to figure out why the computer would not believe that 0.0 == 0.0 [...]

This triggered two thoughts:

  • floating-point numbers in GUIs should be represented differently depending on whether they are an exact representation or an inexact one - which might have saved Gordon's 12 hours. For instance, inexact representations could be a slightly different shade from exact representations, making the hidden difference between the two zeros apparent at a glance; and
  • programming languages must provide reflective access to the representation of floating point numbers, if they are used. As a programmer, I must be able to access the exact bit sequence used to represent the sign, mantissa and exponent of the float.

Regarding reflective access to floats, Java provides floatToIntBits and intBitsToFloat, and C provides (quasi-portable) pointer-based memory-aliasing type-punning to the same effect: float f = 1.23; int i = *((int *) &f);.