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Henry Chen
Henry Chen

Posted on • Originally published at on

Building a data structure with nothing but functions

A simple but far reaching consequence of being able to nest functions is that data can be stored in the enclosing scope - or closure - of the inner function. Consider the following function:

def make_node(value, next_node):
    return lambda func: func(value, next_node)

When make_node is called with two arguments, they are attached to the closure of the returned function. Subsequently, we can access the two arguments via

def value(node):
    return node(lambda value, next_node: value)


def next_node(node):
    return node(lambda value, next_node: next_node)

For example,

>>> node = make_node("head", "tail")
>>> value(node)
>>> next_node(node)

With these functions in hand, it is easy to implement a stack as a linked list. We define the usual stack operations

def push(value, stack):
    return make_node(value, stack)


def pop(stack):
    return value(stack), next_node(stack)

The behavior is as expected:

>>> stack = None
>>> stack = push(1, stack)
>>> stack = push(2, stack)
>>> stack = push(3, stack)
>>> val, stack = pop(stack)
>>> val
>>> val, stack = pop(stack)
>>> val
>>> val, stack = pop(stack)
>>> val

It is remarkable that this stack does not use any built-in data structure such as an array, nor does it build the linked list by instantiating node objects. Rather, there is a chain of functions wherein each function’s closure contains a value and a reference to the next function.

This discussion was inspired by the classic Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. In particular, section 2.1 introduces the notion of using closures to build data structures.

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