13. References

  • It is important for us to have an idea of what exactly is stored in our variables


The ideas below are presented at a very high level and are not quite entirely correct for Python and other similar programming languages. The differences come up in the nuances, but the following is sufficient to cover the important ideas that you need to know. In fact, where there are differences between the following and how Python actually works is not overly important for us, especially in introductory computer science.


We typically use hexadecimal (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, F) when referring to memory addresses, but for simplicity, we will use decimal numbers throughout this topic.

  • Here is an idealized view of memory inside a computer


13.1. Primitive Types in Memory

  • Let’s say we have a single integer called x

  • An integer is a primitive type

  • In many programming languages integers take up 32 bits worth of memory

    • That means 32 0s and 1s

    • E.g. 00101010010010110101110100010100, which is the number 709582100

  • Since we know how much memory an integer takes up, we can easily put integers into nicely divvied up chunks of memory

  • If we divided memory into blocks of 32 bits

  • And we create an integer variable x = 17

  • Something like this will happen

    • The value 17 gets assigned to one of the 32 bit sections of memory

    • A label x is created for that location

  • If we wanted to copy the value of x into another variable, I could write something like y = x

  • When this happens

    • Copy the contents from the location with the label x

    • Place the copied value into another 32 bit section of memory

    • Create a label y for the copied value’s location

  • The contents of x are copied to y

  • This strategy works great for types that have a nicely defined sizes

  • But what happens when we do not know beforehand how much memory something needs in order to store it?

13.2. Lists in Memory

  • Above is a list with length 8

  • The contents are labeled ah, but these are arbitrary labels and we can think of them as integers

  • In the examples so far, memory was divided into chunks of 32 bits which is perfect for integers

  • Unfortunately, we need to store a whole list that contains 8 integers

    • This needs 256 bits

  • Fortunately we have a solution

  • Store each of the elements within the list in their own memory location

    • Similar to how the integer 17 was stored above

  • Section off a large block of memory for the list to hold references to each of the elements of the list

    • For simplicity, instead of storing references within the list, we will pretend that the contents of the list are stored within the block of memory sectioned off for the list

  • For example, the following image shows how we can think of storing the list [a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h]

  • Just put each integer into its own memory location

    • Again, in reality we actually store a reference to the integers, but we are ignoring this for now

  • Keep track of the fact that our list starts at memory address 677 and goes to 684

  • The trick is in how this is managed

13.2.1. References

1z = [a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h]
  • Given the above list creation, the computer finds a contiguous block of memory to store the contents of the list

    • Each element in the list fits nicely into the divvied up sections

  • Then, the information needed to find and access the list contents is stored in a piece of memory labelled with the variable z

    • The list is not stored in z; the location of the list in memory is stored in z



Take a moment to look at this image and see if you can explain why we start counting at 0 when indexing lists.

  • If we wanted to make a copy of z like we did with the integers x and y, we could write something like w = z

  • And just like with the integers, this copies the contents of the memory location of z and puts it into a new location labelled with a w

  • However, the catch is that the contents of z is the memory address of the list

  • After making the copy into w, how many references do have that get me to the memory location of the list?

  • If I want to make a change to w and I write something like w[4] = P, the computer goes to the list referenced by w and alters the value at index 4

  • This does not alter the contents of the memory location of w; this alters the data at the memory location that is referenced to by w

  • In fact, this also alters the data at the memory location that is referenced by z

    • What would happen if I wrote print(z[4])?

  • When we have two or more references referring to the same thing in memory, we call these aliases

    • w is an alias for z

    • This is discussed further in the following topic


As mentioned earlier, in reality Python would not actually store the contents of the list within the block of memory allocated for the list. Instead, Python stores the contents in their own memory locations and the list stores references to the contents.


13.3. For Next Class