A1. Digital Representation of Data

Table of Contents

1 Binary

At its core, all information on a digital computer is stored in a binary format. Binary format represents information using a series of 0s and 1s. If there are \(n\) digits of a binary code, one can represent \(2^{n}\) bits of information.

So for example the binary number denoted by:


represents the number 1. The convention here is called little-endian because the least significant value is on the right, and as one reads right to left, the value of each binary digit doubles. So for example the number 2 would be represented as:


This is a 4-bit code since there are 4 binary digits. The full list of all values that can be represented using a 4-bit code are:

Binary Decimal
0000 0
0001 1
0010 2
0011 3
0100 4
0101 5
0110 6
0111 7
1000 8
1001 9
1010 10
1011 11
1100 12
1101 13
1110 14
1111 15

So with a 4-bit binary code one can represent \(2^{4} = 16\) different values (0-15). Each additional bit doubles the number of values one can represent. So a 5-bit code enables us to represent 32 distinct values, a 6-bit code 64, a 7-bit code 128 and an 8-bit code 256 values (0-255).

Another piece of terminology: a given sequence of binary digits that forms the natural unit of data for a given processor (CPU) is called a word.

Have another look at the ASCII table. The standard ASCII table represents 128 different characters and the extended ASCII codes enable another 128 for a total of 256 characters. How many binary bits are used for each?

2 Hexadecimal

You will also see in the ASCII table that it gives the decimal representation of each character but also the Hexadecimal and Octal representations. The hexadecimal system is a base-16 code and the octal system is a base-8 code. Hex values for a single hexadecimal digit can range over:

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F

If we use a 2-digit hex code we can represent \(16*16 = 256\) distinct values. In computer science, engineering and programming, a common practice is to represent successive 4-bit binary sequences using single-digit hex codes.

So here is our table again, with Binary, Decimal and Hexadecimal values:

Binary Decimal Hexadecimal
0000 0 0
0001 1 1
0010 2 2
0011 3 3
0100 4 4
0101 5 5
0110 6 6
0111 7 7
1000 8 8
1001 9 9
1010 10 A
1011 11 B
1100 12 C
1101 13 D
1110 14 E
1111 15 F

If we have 8-bit binary codes we would use successive hex digits to represent each 4-bit word of the 8-bit byte (another piece of lingo):

Binary Decimal Hexadecimal
0000 0000 0 00
0000 0001 1 01
0000 0010 2 02
1111 1101 253 FD
1111 1110 254 FE
1111 1111 255 FF

The left chunk of 4-bit binary digits (the left word) is represented in hex as a single hex digit (0-F) and the next chunk of 4-bit binary digits (the right word) is represented as another single hex digit (0-F).

Hex is typically used to represent bytes (8-bits long) because it is a more compact notation than using 8 binary digits (hex uses just 2 hex digits).

3 Floating point values

The material above talks about the decimal representation of bytes in terms of integer values (e.g. 0-255). Frequently however in science we want the ability to represent real numbers on a continuous scale, for example 3.14159, or 5.5, or 0.123, etc. For this, the convention is to use floating point representations of numbers.

The idea behind the floating point representation is that it allows us to represent an approximation of a real number in a way that allows for a large number of possible values. Floating point numbers are represented to a fixed number of significant digits (called a significand) and then this is scaled using a base raised to an exponent:

\begin{equation} s~\mathrm{x}~b^{e} \end{equation}

This is related to something you may have come across in high-school science, namely scientific notation. In scientific notation, the base is 10 and so a real number like 123456.789 is represented as \(1.23456789~\mathrm{x}~10^{5}\).

In computers there are different conventions for different CPUs but there are standards, like the IEEE 754 floating-point standard. As an example, a so-called single-precision floating point format is represented in binary (using a base of 2) using 32 bits (4 bytes) and a double precision floating point number is represented using 64 bits (8 bytes). In C you can find out how many bytes are used for various types using the sizeof() function:

#include <stdio.h>

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {

  printf("a single precision float uses %ld bytes\n", sizeof(float));
  printf("a double precision float uses %ld bytes\n", sizeof(double));
  return 0;

On my macbook pro laptop this results in this output:

a single precision float uses 4 bytes
a double precision float uses 8 bytes

According to the IEEE 754 standard, a single precision 32-bit binary floating point representation is composed of a 1-bit sign bit (signifying whether the number is positive or negative), an 8-bit exponent and a 23-bit significand. See the various wikipedia pages for full details.

There is a key phrase in the description of floating point values above, which is that floating point representation allows us to store an approximation of a real number. If we attempt to represent a number that has more significant digits than can be store in a 32-bit floating point value, then we have to approximate that real number, typically by rounding off the digits that cannot fit in the 32 bits. This introduces rounding error.

Now with 32 bits, or even 64-bits in the case of double precision floating point values, rounding error is likely to be relatively small. However it's not zero, and depending on what your program is doing with these values, the rounding errors can accumulate (for example if you're simulating a dynamical system over thousands of time steps, and at each time step there is a small rounding error).

We don't need a fancy simulation however to see the results of floating point rounding error. Open up your favourite programming language (MATLAB, Python, R, C, etc) and type the following (adjust the syntax as needed for your language of choice):

(0.1 + 0.2) == 0.3

What do you get? In Python I get:

>>> (0.1 + 0.2) == 0.3

What's going on here? What's happening is that these decimal numbers, 0.1, 0.2 and 0.3 are being represented by the computer in a binary floating-point format, that is, using a base 2 representation. The issue is that in base 2, the decimal number 0.1 cannot be represented precisely, no matter how many bits you use. Plug in the decimal number 0.1 into an online binary/decimal/hexadecimal converter (such as here) and you will see that the binary representation of 0.1 is an infinitely repeating sequence:

0.000110011001100110011001100... (base 2)

This shouldn't be an unfamiliar situation, if we remember that there are also real numbers that cannot be represented precisely in decimal format, either, because they involve an infintely repeating sequence. For example the real number \(\frac{1}{3}\) when represented in decimal is:

0.3333333333... (base 10)

If we try to represent \(\frac{1}{3}\) using \(n\) decimal digits then we have to chop off the digits to the right that we cannot include, thereby rounding the number. We lose some amount of precision that depends on how many significant digits we retain in our representation.

So the same is true in binary. There are some real numbers that cannot be represented precisely in binary floating-point format.

See here for some examples of significant adverse events (i.e. disasters) cause by numerical errors.

Rounding can be used to your advantage, if you're in the business of stealing from people (see salami slicing). In the awesomely kitchy 1980s movie Superman III, Richard Pryor's character plays a "bumbling computer genius" who embezzles a ton of money by stealing a large number of "fractions of cents" (which in the movie are said to be "lost" anyway due to rounding) from his company's payroll (YouTube clip here).

There is a comprehensive theoretical summary of these issues here: What Every Computer Scientist Should Know About Floating-Point Arithmetic.

Paul Gribble | fall 2014
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