## TIL #085 – negative zero -0.0

Today I learned that Python and other programming languages have negative zero, -0.0.

# Negative zero -0.0

If you open your Python REPL and type -0 in, you get 0 back:

>>> 0
0
>>> -0
0

That makes sense. After all, the integer -0 is the same as the integer 0...

However, 0.0 and -0.0 are also equal but they are displayed differently in your Python REPL:

>>> -0.0
-0.0
>>> 0.0
0.0

As it turns out, because of the way floats work in computers, 0.0 and -0.0 are two different entities. Obviously, they compare as equal:

>>> 0.0 == -0.0
True

But they are different entities. And sometimes, having -0.0 and 0.0 as two distinct things can be helpful.

For example, you can think of -0.0 as a very small negative number that you just couldn't represent as a float. In fact, the code below shows a couple of divisions that should all result in negative numbers, until suddenly we're dealing with such small numbers, that we get -0.0:

x = -1
for _ in range(20):
x /= pow(10, 20)
print(x)

"""
-1e-20
-1e-40
-1e-60
-1e-80
-1e-100
-1e-120
-1e-140
-1e-160
-1e-180
-1e-200
-1e-220
-1e-240
-1e-260
-1e-280
-1e-300
-1e-320
-0.0
-0.0
-0.0
-0.0
"""

In contrast to this, if x starts out as a positive number and you keep dividing it further, you end up at 0.0:

x = 1
for _ in range(20):
x /= pow(10, 20)
print(x)

"""
# ...
1e-260
1e-280
1e-300
1e-320
0.0
0.0
0.0
0.0
"""

## Use cases for negative zero

Someone on Twitter mentioned that they've seen this used in a chemistry paper. The appearance of a -0.0 indicated that a very small number was rounded to 0 from a negative number, but in that particular context (of the chemistry paper), that indicated that a specific chemical process had occurred.

Someone else reported using negative zero -0.0 to represent the value None in a list that could only contain floats. So, if for some reason you have a list that is typed as list[float] and you want to be able to represent the value None, you could use -0.0.

If you know of another practical use case for negative zero, comment below and I'll add it to this article!

## Distinguish 0.0 from -0.0

Because 0.0 == -0.0, one way I could think of to distinguish negative zero from “regular” zero is by converting it to a string and comparing the signs of the number.

The function is_negative_zero below computes this:

def is_negative_zero(number):
return str(number) == "-0.0"

print(is_negative_zero(0.0))   # False
print(is_negative_zero(-0.0))  # True

Then, Adam Johnson on Twitter reminded me of the function math.copysign, which copies the sign of the second argument into the first:

>>> from math import copysign

>>> copysign(10, 1)
10.0
>>> copysign(10, -1)
-10.0
>>> copysign(10, -1234134.1235143)
-10.0

>>> copysign(10, 0)
10.0
>>> copysign(10, -0.0)
-10.0

So you can also use it to identify negative zero:

from math import copysign

def is_negative_zero(number):
return number == 0 and copysign(1, number) == -1

If you come up with a different way to identify negative zero, comment below and I'll add it here!

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