Built on Facts

Sunday Function

Math-averse readers! Do not be scared off! You can enjoy this entry even if as far as you’re concerned the equations are pretty pictures of Cypriot syllabary.

Not long ago we looked at adding up lots of consecutive integers. Multiplying consecutive integers is also interesting, and not only that it has a tremendous number of uses all throughout physics and pure mathematics. The function that multiplies the integers from 1 to n is called the factorial function, and rather unusually it’s denoted with an exclamation point, like this:


Here I’m using dots to denote multiplication, as is pretty common in physics. Now the factorial function gets tremendously huge tremendously fast. The factorial of one hundred is almost 10158, which is just mind-bogglingly enormous. Now if you want to find the factorial of one million, you’re absolutely hosed. Your calculator will choke, and I’m pretty sure even sophisticated systems like Mathematica will start to smoke and sputter before finally giving you an “out of memory” error. There’s just no good way to multiply a million integers together, let alone finding the factorial of the much larger numbers in physics that crop up all the time. Maybe we can find a clean approximation which is good for large n? We can.

Since n! is so unwieldy by virtue of its size, let’s chop it down a notch by finding its natural logarithm. We’ll use this old fact from high school algebra:


Knowing that, we can write the log of n!


That’s not an approximation, so far it’s exact. But exact though it is, it’s not very useful. There’s a trick you can use in calculus to approximate a sum with an integral, so we’ll go ahead and use it.


Now evaluate the integral:


Now the number 1 is pretty much by definition negligible in comparison to large n, so we can drop it from the above equation. From there, take the exponential of both sides to recover an expression for the factorial instead of the logarithm of the factorial.


It’s just an approximation, but it’s a good one. Now it turns out that some careful finagling with the limits of integration in the integral (or alternately an entirely different argument involving the gamma function) can improve our estimate. I’ll skip the derivation and present the final result. It’s called Stirling’s approximation, and it’s our Sunday Function:


You might think that since the root n term grows without limit, our original approximation can’t be right. But that’s not the case. The nn term is so much more quickly growing that for many practical purposes it still works fine. After all, really this is an approximation of the logarithm of n factorial anyway. Neither our rough approximation nor the better one actually converges on n!, instead the absolute error merely grows more slowly than n!. That said, the relative error goes to zero using the root n term. It doesn’t if you leave out the root n term.

Those slightly technical matters aside, both expressions are very useful. How about finding that factorial of one million using it? Let’s do it:


Evaluating the first term is easy; the second will make your calculator choke. Some simple tricks involving logarithms will make it very easy though. I’ll save those as an exercise for the alert reader and present the result:


Whew! Now that is a large number, containing more than five and a half million digits. Readers who have done the calculation themselves will have noticed that as we mentioned before the square root term affects the result in this stacked exponential notation not in the slightest. To get that answer took me about 60 seconds worth of writing down a couple lines to keep track of the logarithms and typing the figures into the calculator. To find the answer without Stirling’s approximation would have been utterly beyond my grasp. Thanks, Stirling!


  1. #1 Foxy
    November 9, 2008

    For what it’s worth, Mathematica actually calculates the approximation to be 8.2639*10^(5565708) in 1.735 seconds, and a separate run got the full value in 1.703 seconds.

    Though, naturally it only showed me part of the full output. When I asked it for the full value, it broke into tears.

    I heart Mathematica!

  2. #2 Foxy
    November 9, 2008

    Actually, check that, it gave the full output after a few seconds, no sweat : D

  3. #3 Matt Springer
    November 9, 2008

    That will teach me to doubt Mathematica! But we can crank up the pain and try again. How about the factorial of a googol (10^100)?

    Using Stirling’s approximation I get that it’s about 10^(10^101.99), so clearly since there’s something like a hundred googol zeros required to just to write the number down, full output on a computer screen would be challenging.

  4. #4 dean
    November 9, 2008

    The free software SAGE, on my Macbook Pro, gave 1000000! in about 15 seconds. Not blindingly fast, but it didn’t choke and (did I say this) SAGE is free.
    Works great with Latex too.

  5. #5 Foxy
    November 9, 2008


    You win this one, Mr. Springer! But be careful, Mathematica and I – we’ll be waiting : )

  6. #6 Joshua Zelinsky
    November 9, 2008

    Stirling’s formula actually generalizes to a nice series. One interesting property is that the series as a whole never converges if you take all the terms but any truncated part of the series forms a really good approximation of n! for large n.

    Stirling’s formula has some nice applications. For example, it is helpful for getting tight bounds on Chebyshev’s theorem on the distribution of the primes without much pain.

  7. #7 easily amused
    November 9, 2008

    That will teach me to doubt Mathematica!

    Actually even the brute-force algorithm only takes half an hour on a fast CPU. Say you represent a big integer by an array of 32-bit unsigned integers (2^32 = 4 billion). Then the largest “big integer” you would need would have a length of (log 10^6!) / (log 2^32) ~ 578,000 machine integers (takes 2.2 MB). In the naive factorial algorithm that loops through the integers in the range 1..10^6 and multiplies them to an accumulator,

    acc = 1
    for i in 1..10^6 {acc = acc * i}

    i never exceeds 10^6, so it fits in a single machine integer. So the operation “acc * i” is a multiplication of a big integer and a machine integer – we can do this by looping through the components of the big integer, multiplying by i, and adding the overflows to the left. This is about 2*n arithmetic operations (n the length of the big integer). So in all we need no more than 2 * 578,000 * 1,000,000 floating ops, about 1 trillion. A modern CPU at 20 billion ops/sec (dedicated ALU) would do this in 10^12 / (2*10^10 /s) = one minute, if it weren’t for pointer arithmetic and memory access. In my attempt it took half an hour.

    The answer is 1.C3EF * (10h)^4,622,221. (10h = 16d – so the exponent (10h)^4,622,221 is similar to 10^5,565,708).

  8. #8 Tim Gaede
    November 10, 2008

    Well, that’s amazing. I just did Stirling’s approximation on a calculator and got

    8.26393134 x 10^5,565,708.

    I wrote a short computer program to sum: log10(2) + log10(3) + … + log10(1000000)

    and got 5,565,708.91718666 which means

    8.26393052 x 10^5,565,708 (very close!)

    It took only a fraction of a second to run. I don’t know what Mathematica was doing for Foxy to take 1.7 seconds.

  9. #9 David Reiss
    November 10, 2008

    Actually there is a difference in the computation speed of Factorial in Mathematica depending on when you attempt to do the numerical (i.e., floating point) evaluation. So, on my machine for


    it takes 0.76 seconds.



    takes 0.000093 seconds, giving the same result in both cases. This all has to do with how Mathematica attempts to address exact calculation versus numerical ones. And hence the order in which you set things up can make a difference.

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