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Jocelyn Paine

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The Prolog Lightbulb Joke

February 22, 2009

I'm going to explain enough Prolog for you to understand the Prolog lightbulb joke.

Prolog stands for "Programming in Logic". Here is a tiny program, which asserts a fact and a rule. Together, these make two-thirds of a well-known syllogism:

is_a( socrates, human ).
is_a( X, mortal ) :-
  is_a( X, human ).
Let's read the fact as "Socrates is human": names starting with a lower-case letter are constants standing for specific things or concepts. The rule means "for any X, X is mortal if X is human". Names starting with upper-case letters are variables.

To get some action out of this program, I type it into a text file. Then I start a Prolog interactive shell and tell it to load this file. I'll use Jan Wielemaker's excellent SWI-Prolog:

Welcome to SWI-Prolog (Multi-threaded, 32 bits, Version 5.6.64)
Copyright (c) 1990-2008 University of Amsterdam.
SWI-Prolog comes with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY. This is free software,
and you are welcome to redistribute it under certain conditions.
Please visit for details.

For help, use ?- help(Topic). or ?- apropos(Word).

1 ?- consult(syllogism).
% syllogism compiled 0.00 sec, 424 bytes
(I've shown my input in bold: Prolog's output, in normal.) And then I ask whether the syllogism's conclusion holds, to which Prolog replies that it does:
2 ?- is_a( socrates, mortal ).
true .

Here are Prolog's replies to some other queries:

3 ?- is_a( socrates, human ).
true .

4 ?- is_a( Person, human ).
Person = socrates .

5 ?- is_a( Person, mortal ).
Person = socrates .
The first query asks Prolog whether the stated relation holds. The second two ask it to find some Person — another variable — for whom the stated relation holds. 

Let's do some list processing. This is another Prolog program:

borders( belgium, france ).
borders( france, spain ).
borders( germany, austria ).
borders( germany, denmark ).
borders( germany, switzerland ).
borders( netherlands, belgium ).
borders( netherlands, germany ).
borders( spian, portugal ).

route( A, B ) :-
  borders( A, B ).

route( A, B ) :-
  borders( A, Z ),
  route( Z, B ).
I'll interpret the first rule as: there is a route from A to B if A borders B. The second, as: there is a route from A to B if A borders some Z, and there is a route from that Z to B.

In 2002, I took a train from Maastricht in Holland to Braga in Portugal: I'd been watching the Euro-welcoming ceremony in Maastricht, and wanted to get from there to Portugal by 1 pm on the following Saturday to see how the market-stall holders in Braga's first post-Euro market were coping with the changeover. If this seems perverse, let's just say that I'd stayed in Braga before, and knew that the town market closed at 1 pm each Saturday. Let's ask Prolog whether the route itself is feasible: advanced readers can augment my program with train timetables and work out a minimum journey time. So I put the above program into a file called "countries" and ask the interactive shell:

6 ?- consult(countries).
% countries compiled 0.00 sec, 408 bytes

7 ?- route(netherlands,portugal).

What's that? There's no such route? Must be something wrong with my code. Oh, I see: I mistyped "spain" as "spian" in the above file. So Prolog couldn't infer a route from the facts, and replied "false". Some Prologs don't reply "false", but "no". It means the same: no answer can be proven. This kind of thing can happen in other ways too. For example, if I'd typed "broders" instead of "borders" in one of those facts, "route" would have ignored it, and my query would have answered "false" in the same way.

Now I've edited "spian" to "spain", and I'm going to reload my facts and ask again whether there's a route:

8 ?- consult(countries).
% countries compiled 0.00 sec, 408 bytes

9 ?- route(netherlands,portugal).
true .
And this time, Prolog tells me that there is. 

But what is that route? Here's an amended definition of "route" that will calculate it for me:

route( A, B, [ go(A,B) ] ) :-
  borders( A, B ).

route( A, B, [ go(A,Z) | ZtoB ] ) :-
  borders( A, Z ),
  route( Z, B, ZtoB ).
Now, I've given "route" an extra, third, argument. I intend this to be an output argument, analogous to the result of a function: "route" will put something into it. The first clause for "route" puts "[ go(A,B) ]" into it. This is a one-element list. The square brackets say it's a list, and its single element is "go(A,B)". Logicians and Prolog programmers call "go(A,B)" a "term". It's like a structure or record, with two fields, distinguished by position rather than by name. The first field will become whatever A holds; the second, whatever B holds.

Whenever possible, Prolog programmers read programs as sets of logical statements, not as commands. So here's a logical reading for the first clause for "route": if A borders B, the route from A to B is the list containing the record "go(A,B)". And here's a logical reading for the second clause: if A borders some Z, and there's a route ZtoB from Z to B, then the route from A to B is the list holding the record "go(A,Z)" followed by ZtoB. Square brackets indicate a list, as before; vertical bar means "followed by". Could recursion ever be more concise?

10 ?- consult(countries).
% countries compiled 0.00 sec, 408 bytes

11 ?- route(netherlands,portugal,R).
R = [go(netherlands, belgium), go(belgium, france),
go(france, spain), go(spain, portugal)]

This "route" predicate generates a list, putting it into an output argument. But predicates can also take lists as inputs, as I'll show now. A textbook author — possibly Patrick Henry Winston — once wrote the following as an example to help novices understand recursion:

This is how to tidy up your room:
  if there are no toys lying around,
    do nothing.
  if there is a toy lying around,
    pick it up and put it in the toybox,
    and tidy up your room.

To render this as Prolog. I'll write a predicate called "tidy" with two arguments. The first, an input, will be a list of toys. The second, an output, will be a list of the commands a robot must obey in order to tidy them. Here's my predicate:

tidy( [], [] ).

tidy( [ Toy | OtherToys ], [ pick_up(Toy), move_to(toybox), drop(Toy) | OtherCommands ] ) :-
  tidy( OtherToys, OtherCommands ).

I'll read the first clause as meaning: if the list of toys to tidy is empty, the list of commands needed is empty. And the second as: if the list of toys starts with any toy (a variable) which we'll call Toy, and continues with OtherToys, and the commands needed to tidy OtherToys are OtherCommands, then the complete list of commands needed is "pick_up(Toy)" followed by "move_to(toybox)" followed by "drop(Toy)" followed by OtherCommands.

Let's test this:

12 ?- consult(tidy).
% tidy compiled 0.00 sec, 864 bytes

13 ?- tidy( [ teddy, ball, golly, bat ], Cmds ).
Cmds = [pick_up(teddy), move_to(toybox), drop(teddy),
pick_up(ball), move_to(toybox), drop(ball),
pick_up(golly), move_to(toybox), drop(golly),
pick_up(bat), move_to(toybox), drop(bat)]

What this shows is that although Prolog has its roots in logical inference, it can do the same kind of list processing as any other language. And in doing so, can build huge data structures indeed. I have just given my Prolog system this query and received the following reply:

14 ?- length( L, 5000000 ).
L = [_G8, _G11, _G14, _G17, _G20, _G23, _G26, _G29, _G32|...].
The predicate "length" is a built-in, which can measure the length of a list. Or if given an integer as input, return a list of the specified length. Here, L has become a list containing 5,000,000 elements, of which Prolog has shown me 9, indicating the rest as dots. I got an out-of-stack error when I asked for 6,000,000, but hey, 5 million ain't bad. 

Here's another vast structure which I've managed to provoke by using the Prolog debugger on my category theory demonstrations: Really long and horrible Prolog data structure Now, because I wrote the program, I know the term isn't nearly as big as that 5-million long list. But I also know it contains many internal links that point into the same subterms. Every time Prolog displays one of these links, it displays the subterm at the end of it, even if it has done so a hundred times already. This makes sense in the context of logic programming, where two terms are equal if they contain identical values, regardless of whether these are the same place in memory. But it also means that unless I write special code to detect common subterms and display them once only, I get swamped by debugging output.

So it's 2 am. You are debugging a Prolog program. You slump before your screen, glazed eyes staring into a data structure that's as opaque as the programmer-fuel coffee in your cup and the night sky you see from your office window. Somewhere in your 30 modules and 30,000 lines of code is a misspelt constant or a misspelt predicate. You can't think of anything else to do, so you run your program again, hoping it will automagically have healed:
How many Prolog programmers does it take to change a lightbulb?

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