How to implement the Y-combinator in JavaScript


This post provides a very simple step-by-step implementation of the Y-combinator in JavaScript. You should be able to implement the Y-combinator in your language of choice after reading this post; as you’ll see – it’s that easy.

What is a combinator?

According to wikipedia,

A combinator is a particular type of higher-order function that may be used in defining functions without using variables. The combinators may be combined to direct values to their correct places in the expression without ever naming them as variables.

The emphasized text highlights the most interesting part of the definition – combinators allow functions to be defined without variables. Imperative programming relies heavily on variables and trying to eschew variables can be a mind-stretching exercise.

Show me the code!

The following code snippet is a Y-combinator example of the factorial function in JavaScript.

var yCombFact = function (number) {
    return (function (fn) {
        return fn(fn, number);
    })(function(f, n) {
        if(n <= 1) {
            return 1;
        } else {
            return n * f(f, (n - 1));
        }
    });
};

yCombFact(5);
//120

Looks abstruse right? No worries – lets break it down.

Two major things

There are two major concepts that help drive home the understanding of the Y-combinator:

  1. No variables allowed – this implies we have to find a way to write the factorial function without using variables.
  2. Invoking the no-variable-function defined in 1 without using variables again.

Part 1: Rewriting the factorial function without variables

Here is the factorial function definition. Can you spot the variable usage in it?

var factorial = function(n) {
    if(n <= 1) {
        return 1;
    } else {
        return n * factorial(n - 1);
    }
}

factorial(5);
//120

The expression n * factorial(n – 1) only succeeds because it can find the variable factorial in scope; without it, the factorial function would not be recursive. But remember, we are trying to do away with all variables.

The workaround is to pass in the variable reference as a function parameter. In the factorial example, recursion can then be achieved by using the placeholder parameter as the reference. The no-variable-factorial function looks like the following:

var noVarFactorial = function(fn, n) {
    if(n <= 1) {
        return 1;
    } else {
        return n * fn(fn, (n - 1));
    }
}

noVarFactorial(noVarFactorial, 5);
//120

The new definition works exactly like the old one but without the internal dependency on the factorial variable. Rather, recursion succeeds by relying on the ‘injected’  parameter and the computer is none the wiser.

Part 2: Invoking the no-variable function without variables

We have rewritten the factorial function to avoid variables however we still need to store the factorial function in a variable before invoking it


var factorial = ...;

factorial(factorial, 5);

The trick? Functions to the rescue again! Let’s create a factorialCalculator function that uses the noVariableFactorial definition above.

function factorialCalculator(n) {
    //as defined earlier
    var noVarFactorial = ...;
    return noVarFactorial(noVarFactorial, n);
}

factorialCalculator(5);
//120

The noVarFactorial name has to go since we want to avoid variables. And how do we achieve this? Yes, functions once more. So lets create a wrapper function inside the factorialCalculator that invokes noVariableFactorial.

function factorialCalculator(n) {
    var wrapper = function (noVarFact) {
        return noVarFact(noVarFact, n);
    }
    return wrapper(noVarFactorial);
}

factorialCalculator(5);
//120

Unfortunately, the wrapper function has led created another wrapper variable and this has to be eliminated too. For a complete implementation, the two variables (wrapper and noVarFact) have to go.

It’s now time to leverage language specific idioms to achieve this. JavaScript has the IIFE idiom which allows you to immediately invoke a function (read about it here). Using it, we can eliminate the need for the wrapper variable as thus:


function factorialCalculator(n) {
    return (function (noVarFact) {
        return noVarFact(noVarFact, n);
    })(noVarFactorial);
}

factorialCalculator(5);
//120

Combining all the pieces

The last thing is to insert the noVarFact definition so that it is no longer a global variable in the scope. Just as we do in Mathematics, we can just ‘substitute’ the value in. The final piece is then:

function factorialCalculator(n) {
    return (function (noVarFact) {
        return noVarFact(noVarFact, n);
    })(function(fn, n) {
        if(n <= 1) {
            return 1;
        } else {
            return n * fn(fn, (n - 1));
        }
    });
}

factorialCalculator(5);
//120

And that, my friends, is the yCombinator in all its glory. I have decide to leave the variables as they are to make it all clear but here is the standard format so you know it when you see it


function factorialCalculator(n) {
    return (function (fn) {
        return fn(fn, n);
    })(function(fn, n) {
        if(n <= 1) {
            return 1;
        } else {
            return n * fn(fn, (n - 1));
        }
    });
}
factorialCalculator(5);

Conclusion

The Y-combinator is quite easy to understand – it requires understanding function invocation patterns, variable substitution by parameters and higher level functions. As an exercise, can you try implementing the fibonacci using the Y-combinator approach? Better still, why not create a Y-combinator function that accepts function that match the fn(fn, n) signature?

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