We demonstrate that numerical integration can be more accurate than the numerical evaluation of the analytical integration result. We review floating point number representation and arithmetic, before breaking down integration into 3 possible methods, and analysing their relative merits. All work is done in an IPython notebook that can be downloaded from a link at the bottom of the article. "

## 1. Floating point representation and arithmetic¶

Floating point numbers, such as 0.1, 3.14 and 100.0 are generally represented approximately in a computer (see for example the Wikipedia entry on Floating Point entry). Some of the numbers we care about can be represent exactly in this number scheme (such as 0.5, as it can be written as $\frac{1}{2} = 2^{-1}$ and thus expressed exactly in base 2), but other are only approximated, such as 0.1:

```
print("{:.20}".format(0.5)) # exact representation possible
print("{:.20}".format(0.1)) # approximation of 0.1 used
```

These inaccuracies (approximation errors) tend to be of the order of $10^{-16}$ for IEEE double floating point representation with 8 bytes). In other words, the (nowadays quasi) standard floating point number has about 15 significant digits.

However, there are further complications when we subtract two numbers (see also Wikipedia: Loss of Significance). Here is an example: while $x$ and $y$ have 15 significant digits and the difference of the two should be $10^{-15}$, the value of $z = x - y$ has lost the vast majority of this significance:

```
x = 1.123456789012341000
y = 1.123456789012340000
z = x - y
print(z)
```

```
print("Relative error of z = {}".format((1e-15 - z)/1e-15))
```

So the relative error is of the order of 10% -- that is very inaccurate.

The lesson is that subtraction of floating point numbers of similar magnitude leads to results that have a high relative error (or, equivalently, a small number of significant digits). This is referred to as *catastrophic cancellation*, when the reduction of significant digits is unacceptable.

The remainder of this blog entry focusses on this effect in evaluating integrals.

## 2. About the computation of $\int_a^b f(x) \mathrm{d}x$ using a computer¶

Assume we have some scalar function $f(x)$ depending on a scalar $x$ which we need to integrate to compute some number $c$:

$$c = \int_a^b f(x) \mathrm{d}x$$

We first review different methods of doing this, and then show some (maybe) suprising properties for special combinations of $f(x)$, and integration limits $a$ and $b$. In particular, we will look at $f(x)=x$ and $a$ and $b$ are both large, but $|b-a| \equiv \Delta x$ is small.

### 2.1 Method 1: Compute integral symbolically¶

If the function $f(x)$ is sufficiently simple, we can compute the antiderivative $F = \int f(x) \mathrm{dx}$ analytically. In the following code example, we will use the SYMbolic PYthon (sympy) package to attempt this, and in what follows we use the trivial function $f(x) = x$, which can be integrated analytically.

```
import sympy
def analytical_integral(f, a, b, verbose=True):
"""Compute \int_a^b f(x) dx symbolically. f, a and b can be
given as strings and will be converted into the exact number
using sympy's sympify method. The function f should depend
on 'x'. Returns a sympy object.
Example: analytical_integral('x', 1, '1/10')
"""
fsym = sympy.sympify(f)
integral = sympy.simplify(sympy.integrate(fsym, ('x', a, b)))
if verbose:
print("Compute \int_{}^{} {} dx = {} = {} (exactly, using sympy)"\
.format(a, b, fsym, integral, integral.evalf()))
return integral
```

Let's test this integration for $c = \int_1^2 x \mathrm{dx}$, i.e. we use $f(x)=x$. Of course $F(x) = \frac{1}{2}x^2$, so that the analytical solution is known here:

```
print("%s" % analytical_integral('x', 1, '2'))
```

### 2.2 Method 2: Compute anti-derivative $F(x)$ symbolically, but evaluate the difference $F(b)-F(a)$ numerically:¶

```
import sympy
def evaluate_analytical_integral(f, a, b, verbose=True):
"""Compute antiderivative F(x) symbolically (so that
dF/dx(x) = f(x)), and evaluate F(b) - F(a) using
double floating point arithmetic. The parameters f, a
and b can be given as strings and will be converted
into the exact number using sympy's sympify method.
Return a float object."""
fsym = sympy.sympify(f)
Fsym = sympy.integrate(fsym)
if verbose:
print("Function we work on is {}, antiderivative is {}"\
.format(fsym, Fsym))
term1 = float(Fsym.subs('x', a).evalf(20))
term2 = float(Fsym.subs('x', b).evalf(20))
integral = term2 - term1 # this is where cancellation may
# take place
if verbose:
print("Evaluate F(b)-F(a) as {:.16g} - {:.16g} = {:.16g} (in floats)"\
.format(term2, term1, integral))
return integral
```

```
evaluate_analytical_integral('x', 1, 2)
```

### 2.3 Method 3: Compute integral numerically (composite trapezoidal rule)¶

```
def comp_trapezoidal_rule(f, a, dx, nsubdiv=100):
"""Return the approximation of the integral \int_a^b f(x) dx using
the composite trapezoidal rule with nsubdiv subdivisions.
Expect f(x) to be python function, accepting a float x and
returning a float f(x).
Equation as in
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trapezoidal_rule#Uniform_grid
"""
s = f(a)
for i in xrange(1, nsubdiv):
x = a + i * dx / float(nsubdiv)
s = s + 2 * f(x)
s = s + f(a + dx)
return s * dx / nsubdiv / 2.
```

```
comp_trapezoidal_rule(f=lambda x : x, a=1, dx=1)
```

### 2.4 Introduce convenience function that COMPAREs the three approaches¶

```
def compare(f, a, dx):
"""Compute \int_a^b f(x) dx using different
methods, where b = a + dx."""
# convert strings to sympy objects
asym = sympy.sympify(a) # this allows use of '1/10'
# for exact representation of 0.1
dxsym = sympy.sympify(dx)
bsym = asym + dxsym
fsym = sympy.sympify(f)
# and get doubles from this
afloat = float(asym.evalf(20))
bfloat = float(bsym.evalf(20))
dxfloat = float(dxsym)
# and a float python function
ffloat = lambda x : float(fsym.subs('x', x))
exact = analytical_integral(fsym, asym, bsym, verbose=False)
evaluate_exact = evaluate_analytical_integral(fsym, afloat, bfloat,
verbose=False)
num_int = comp_trapezoidal_rule(ffloat, afloat, dxfloat)
rel_err_evaluate_exact = abs((exact - evaluate_exact)/exact)
rel_err_num_int = abs((exact - num_int)/exact)
print("Analytic = {:23.16g}, rel.err = {:13.6}"\
.format(float(exact.evalf(16)), 0.))
print("Evaluate Exact = {:23.16g}, rel.err = {:13.6e}"\
.format(evaluate_exact, float(rel_err_evaluate_exact)))
print("Num.integrated = {:23.16g}, rel.err = {:13.6e}"\
.format(float(num_int), float(rel_err_num_int.evalf(16))))
return rel_err_evaluate_exact
```

### 2.5 Which method to use?¶

This is generally dictated by the problem: if we can use method 1 to (i) solve the integral analytically and (ii) combine $F(b)-F(a)$ into a single expression, then this is the exact and the preferred method.

The generally second best situation is that we can compute $F(x)$ analytically and evaluate $F(b)-F(a)$ numerically, as described in method 2.

The least preferred option is normally the numeric integration as outlined in method 3.

## Results¶

### 3.1 First demo¶

We compute $\int_a^{a + \frac{1}{11}} x \mathrm{dx}$ for increasing $a$. Let's start with a data point where $a=1$, where we find a relative error of the integration result (using method 2) that is of the expected order of magnitude of $\approx 10^{-15}$.

Our attention is on the numerical error of method 2 (labelled "Evaluate exact" in the output below).

```
a='1'; dx = '1/11'
compare('x', a, dx)
```

However, increasing $a$ to ten million (no other changes), results in a relative error of $\approx 10^{-8}$:

```
a='10000000'; dx = '1/11'
compare('x', a, dx)
```

The analytic result (method 1) is fully exact, and used as a reference. The 'Evaluate Exact' result is method 2, and we will focus on its error, which originates in the evaluation of $F(b)-F(a)$.

The numerical integration data from method 3 is not particularly meaningful here: as our test function f(x) is linear, the composite trapezoidal rule should integrate it exactly (apart from floating point inaccuracies), and the error is therefore always expected to be low (no differences in the equation). If the function was not linear (for example $f(x)=x^2$), the error of method 3 would be larger, but this could be addressed through more integration points or a higher order integration method.

### 3.2 Study this systematically for $f(x)=x$¶

We compute $\int_a^{a + \frac{1}{11}} x \mathrm{dx}$ for increasing $a$, where $a = 10^p$ and $p$ grows from 0 to 20.

```
rel_errs = []
powers = range(0, 20, 1)
for power in powers:
a = 10**power
print("\ncompute \int x dx, from a = {} to a+1/11".format(a))
relerr = compare('x', a, '1/11')
rel_errs.append(relerr)
```

```
%matplotlib inline
import pylab
pylab.figure(figsize=(10,6))
pylab.semilogy(powers, rel_errs, 'o')
pylab.xlabel('powers of a')
pylab.ylabel('relative error of method 2')
pylab.title('$\int_a^b x \mathrm{dx}$')
```

We can see that the relative error of method 2 grows as the number $a$ increases. When $a\approx 10^{15}$ the relative error reaches 1 (=100%) as all digits in the difference computation $F(b)-F(a)$ have become insignificant (and the integration result computed using method 2 is 0, thus the relative error is 1).

### 3.3 Study this systematically for $f(x)=x^2$¶

We compute $\int_a^{a + \frac{1}{11}} x^2 \mathrm{dx}$ for increasing $a$, where $a = 10^p$ and $p$ grows from 0 to 20.

```
rel_errs = []
powers = range(0, 20, 1)
for power in powers:
a = 10**power
print("\ncompute \int x^2 dx, from a = {} to a+1/11".format(a))
relerr = compare('x**2', a, '1/11')
rel_errs.append(relerr)
```

```
pylab.figure(figsize=(10,6))
pylab.semilogy(powers, rel_errs, 'o')
pylab.xlabel('powers of a')
pylab.ylabel('relative error of method 2')
pylab.title('$\int_a^b x^2 \mathrm{dx}$')
```

This second example, where we integrate $f(x)=x^2$ is meant to further demonstrate that the error of the method 3 (numerical integration) does not suffer this increasing error as the integration limit $a$ increases, even if the function is not entirely trivial (as was $f(x)=x$ in 3.2).

## 4. Summary¶

The main point we are trying to bring across here is that there can be situations in which (numerically) *evaluating* the exact integral (method 2) can be much less exact than full numerical integration (method 3).

This originates from catastrophic cancellation of similarly large numbers: in the constructed example above, this comes from $a$ and $b$ being very large and similar, and by using a linear function $f(x)$, this difference translates directly into $F(b)-F(a)$. What matters is of course the difference between similarly large numbers $F(a)$ and $F(b)$: other, and less artificial, integration limits $a$ and $b$ can translate into such a difference for other functions $f(x)$.

The numerical integration does not suffer from this problem as the approximation of the integral is computing using a sum (no differences).

A real-life example where this matters is the computation of the demagnetisation tensor in finite difference micromagnetic simulations. The recent work by Dmitri Chernyshenko shows how numerical integration provides highest accuracy of the demag tensor entries for intermediate distances - for exactly the reasons outlined above.

Download this notebook.