Repeating Actions with loops

Learning Objectives

  • Explain what a for loop does.
  • Correctly write for loops to repeat simple calculations.
  • Trace changes to a loop variable as the loop runs.
  • Trace changes to other variables as they are updated by a for loop.

In the last lesson, we wrote some code that plots some values of interest from our first inflammation dataset, and reveals some suspicious features in it, such as from inflammation-01.csv

However, we have a dozen data sets right now, though, and more on the way. We want to create plots for all of our data sets with a single statement. To do that, we’ll have to teach the computer how to repeat things.

An example task that we might want to repeat is printing each character in a word on a line of its own. One way to do this would be to use a series of print statements:

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This is a bad approach for two reasons:

  • It doesn’t scale: if we want to print the characters in a string that’s hundreds of letters long, we’d be better off just typing them in.

  • It’s fragile: if we give it a longer string, it only prints part of the data, and if we give it a shorter one, it produces an error because we’re asking for characters that don’t exist.

word = 'tin' print(word[0]) print(word[1]) print(word[2]) print(word[3])

Here's a better approach

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The improved version uses a for loop to repeat an operation—in this case, printing—once for each thing in a collection. The general form of a loop is:

for variable in collection:
    do things with variable


for page in book:

We can call the loop variable anything we like, but there must be a colon at the end of the line starting the loop, and we must indent anything we want to run inside the loop. Unlike many other languages, there is no command to end a loop (e.g. end for); what is indented after the for statement belongs to the loop.

We can use for loops to count things by increasing variables:

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It’s worth tracing the execution of this little program step by step. Since there are five characters in 'aeiou', the statement on line 3 will be executed five times. The first time around, length is zero (the value assigned to it on line 1) and vowel is 'a'. The statement adds 1 to the old value of length, producing 1, and updates length to refer to that new value. The next time around, vowel is 'e' and length is 1, so length is updated to be 2. After three more updates, length is 5; since there is nothing left in 'aeiou' for Python to process, the loop finishes and the print statement on line 4 tells us our final answer.

Note that a loop variable is just a variable that’s being used to record progress in a loop. It still exists after the loop is over, and we can re-use variables previously defined as loop variables as well:

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Note also that finding the length of a string is such a common operation that Python actually has a built-in function to do it called len:

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len is much faster than any function we could write ourselves, and much easier to read than a two-line loop; it will also give us the length of many other things that we haven’t met yet, so we should always use it when we can.

Use other peoples code

Its a safe bet they are smarter than you.

1 to N

Python has a built-in function called `range` that creates a sequence of numbers. Range can accept 1-3 parameters. If one parameter is input, range creates an array of that length, starting at zero and incrementing by 1. If 2 parameters are input, range starts at the first and ends at the second, incrementing by one. If range is passed 3 parameters, it stars at the first one, ends at the second one, and increments by the third one. For example, `range(3)` produces the numbers 0, 1, 2, while `range(2, 5)` produces 2, 3, 4, and `range(3, 10, 3)` produces 3, 6, 9. Using `range`, write a loop that uses `range` to print the first 3 natural numbers.

Loops of Power!

Exponential is built into python and is signified with `**`. Write a loop which calculates `5**3` without using the `**` functionality.

Reverse a string

Pick a string and reverse the order in which the characters appear (no palendromes).