Isomorphisms Between Integers and Some Composite Types in Haskell
In category theory, an isomorphism is a morphism that can be reversed by an inverse morphism. But let’s not get too bothered by what exactly this means and what it might imply, instead we’ll jump straight to Haskell:
When applied to two not necessarily different Haskell types a
and b
, an isomorphism comprises two functions f :: a > b
and g :: b > a
such that f . g == id
and g . f == id
. The existence of f
and g
shows that both types are basically equivalent in the kind of information they can express – the other type is always just a “lossless” conversion away.
I suppose it’s best to start with a few simple examples so you can get a feel for the concept:
(a,b)
is clearly isomorphic to(b,a)
. The two sum types
data Crew = Malcolm  Kaylee  Jaybe
anddata Job = Captain  Mechanic  PublicRelations
are isomorphic. If you don’t see why, I suggest you watch more prematurelycancelled scifi shows. Maybe a
is isomorphic toEither a ()
. The unit type()
contains only a single value, also written()
, soEither a ()
can assume the formLeft a
, corresponding toJust a
, orRight ()
, corresponding toNothing
. In a similar vein, we can create an isomorphism between
Bool
andEither () ()
by interpretingTrue
asLeft ()
andFalse
asRight ()
(and the other way around).  Integers can be expressed as being either 0, the predecessor of an integer, or the successor of an integer. Both representations can be converted into each other to your heart’s desire, making them isomorphic. ^{1}
Sounds reasonable enough. However, there are some somewhat perplexing (at first glance, anyway) isomorpishms between the Integer
type and a few composite types. That’s what this post is about!
Let’s Maybe Just get started
Integer
is isomorphic to Maybe Integer
. Think about it for a minute before reading on – if it throws you for a loop, you’re not alone.
When I was first confronted with that statement, I was a bit confused because the obvious Maybe Integer > Integer
function – simply freeing the integers from their Just
shells – seemed to leave no “space” for Nothing
in the function domain.
The trick is to shift things around a bit:
itom :: Integer > Maybe Integer
itom 0 = Nothing
itom i = Just $ if i < 0 then i else i  1
mtoi :: Maybe Integer > Integer
mtoi Nothing = 0
mtoi (Just i) = if i < 0 then i else i + 1
As you can see, when converting Integer
s to Maybe Integer
s, we return Nothing
for 0, but because we need to acount for the Just 0
case in the inverse function, we shift all positive integers a spot to the left. The inverse function then shifts them back to the right and all is well.
Either go Right ahead or be Left behind
Things get a bit more tricky when we try to come up with an ismorphism between Integer
and Either Integer Integer
. A simple shift won’t get the job done this time.
Our Integer > Either Integer Integer
function needs to somehow split up the set of integers such that both the Left
and Right
cases get slices of the pie. The inverse function then needs to reverse this split. Considered in isolation, this would be trivial – we could split based on parity and reverse the split by simply unpacking the value fenced in by either the Left
or Right
constructor.
itoe :: Integer > Either Integer Integer
itoe i  odd i = Left i
 even i = Right i
etoi :: Either Integer Integer > Integer
etoi (Left i) = i
etoi (Right i) = i
That’s just a way of encoding Integer
values as Either Integer Integer
, though, not an isomorphism. For example, consider the other direction: If we feed a Right 1
through itoe . etoi
, which should compose to be equivalent to id
if we had an isomorphism on our hands, what we get back is Left 1
!
Let’s try again. Each of our two functions, operating on arbitrary output values of its inverse, must be able to “fill” its domain fully, otherwise there will be a case where we cannot get the same value we put in out again.
Sticking with the basic structure from above, we can modify the itoe
function to “compress” its input Integer
s: Even numbers are divided in half and wrapped in Right
, odd numbers are decremented (to make them even), then also divided in half and wrapped in Left
. Knowing that Left
values correspond to odd numbers, the inverse function etoi
can now reverse our previous transformation steps without any loss of information. Going the other direction, etoi
outputs odd numbers for Left
inputs, enabling its inverse itoe
to compute the original value correctly.
itoe :: Integer > Either Integer Integer
itoe i  odd i = Left $ (i  1) `div` 2
 even i = Right $ i `div` 2
etoi :: Either Integer Integer > Integer
etoi (Left i) = i * 2 + 1
etoi (Right i) = i * 2
This time around, let’s actually prove that these function form an isomorphism. We’ll use equational reasoning for this, first (out of four cases) considering the etoi . itoe
composition for odd numbers. That means we have to show that id = etoi . itoe
holds in this case:
Plugging in the matching function definitions as lambda expressions yields id = (\(Left i) > i * 2 + 1) . (\i > Left $ (i  1) `div` 2)
. Noticing that the second lambda wraps its result in a Left
and the first simply unwraps it, we can remove both – as they cancel out – leaving us with id = (\i > i * 2 + 1) . (\i > (i  1) `div` 2)
. With that out of the way, we can substitute the second lambda’s body for i
in the first function definition, resulting in id = \i > ((i  1) `div` 2) * 2 + 1
. Because i
is odd, decrementing it leaves us with an even number, which can be halved without remainder, so div
and * 2
cancel each other out: id = \i > (i  1) + 1
. You’ll surely see how that’s is equivalent to id = \i > i
, and \i > i
is the identity function, so we’re done!
Showing etoi . itoe
for even numbers works the same way, so I’ll skip that here. That’s two cases down, two to go – namely, we need to show that id = itoe . etoi
for both Left
and Right
input values. Again, I’ll only show this for Right
(in a more concise format than above) and skip the very similar Left
case.
id = itoe . etoi
= (\i > Right $ i `div` 2) . (\(Right i) > i * 2)
= (\i > i `div` 2) . (\i > i * 2)
= (\i > (i * 2) `div` 2)
= (\i > i)
= id
Division among your newly enlisted units
If we were only considering nonnegative integers, the isomorphism between Integer
and [()]
would be fairly obvious: The Integer > [()]
function could be implemented as flip replicate ()
^{2} with the inverse being length
.
The same approach can’t Just Work™ here as scientists have yet to come up with a way to create lists of negative length. Due to of the scientists’ utter ineptitude, we first have take a bit of a detour and find an isomorphism between Integer
and nonnegative integers (or natural numbers, as they’re called by some).
Consider again^{3} the Either
isomorphism from above, where we split the set of integers based on parity in the itoe
function. There’s nothing keeping us from doing something very similar based on the sign, so we’ll do just that!
type Nat = Integer  but not negative, which we won't enforce here
iton :: Integer > Nat
iton i = if i >= 0 then i * 2 else i * 2  1
ntoi :: Nat > Integer
ntoi n = if even n then n `div` 2 else (n + 1) `div` 2
Shooting a disappointed look at the clearly impressed scientists, we can now use our iton
and ntoi
functions to assemble the isomorphism we set out to implement:
itol :: Integer > [()]
itol i = replicate (fromIntegral $ iton i) ()
ltoi :: [()] > Integer
ltoi l = ntoi $ (fromIntegral . length) l
This is getting out hand, now there are two of them!
This is the last isomorphism we’ll fully implement, and it’s an interesting one: As it turns out, we can show that Integer
is isomorphic to (Integer,Integer)
. This may sound a bit confusing on a conceptual level – you can’t make two out of one, can you? And then compress both back into one again, yielding the value you started out with? And vice versa?
However, when you think of this isomorphism in visual terms, it will quickly make sense to you:
Given a twodimensional coordinate system, we can enumerate its coordinates (corresponding to our (Integer,Integer)
type) by going in a spiral from the center successively outwards, yielding natural numbers (as long as we don’t get too dizzy to keep track). If this mapping function is invertible, all that’s left to do is to chain it together with our iton
and ntoi
functions, and we’ve got our isomorphism.
Luckily, we don’t have to descend into the depths of number theory to try and come up with a mapping function. The scientists we’ve met earlier, in a desperate ploy to redeem themselves, have already done that: the Cantor pairing function^{4} is exactly what we’re looking for. The Germanlanguage edition of Wikipedia even gives a sample implementation – it’s written in Java, but can trivially be released from its miseryadapted to Haskell.
itot :: Integer > (Integer,Integer)
itot z = (ntoi $ j  k, ntoi k)
where
z' = iton z
j = floor $ sqrt (0.25 + 2 * fromIntegral z')  0.5
k = z'  j * (j + 1) `div` 2
ttoi :: (Integer,Integer) > Integer
ttoi (x,y) = ntoi $ ((x' + y') * (x' + y' + 1)) `div` 2 + y'
where
(x',y') = (iton x, iton y)
To make sure that this really works, I’ve taken to plot.ly/create/ where I’ve quicklyanddirtily plotted the tuple representations, according to the implementation above, of the first 100 positive integers (in blue) and the first 100 negative integers (in orange).
Even though the lines connecting the coordinate pairs are looking a bit broken up in some places because of how the math works out, you can clearly see the spiral pattern – larger integers are further from the origin and there aren’t any gaps.
A fistful of numbers
If you think that’s not cool enough, I’ll have Steven Pigeon, author of the article “Pairing Function” on Wolfram MathWorld, drop some knowledge on you:
To pair more than two numbers, pairings of pairings can be used. For example can be defined as or , but should be defined as to minimize the size of the number thus produced. The general scheme is then
and so on.
In summary, by “stacking” this isomorphism an arbitrary number of times, we can show that an arbitrarily long tuple of Integer
s is isomorphic to Integer
. In theory, there’s nothing keeping us from using the same logic to show…
For a few numbers more
…that Integer
is isomorphic to [Integer]
!
In practice, my attempts to write the required pair of functions have only resulted in the ability to encode [Integer]
values as Integer
s – not the other way around. There are some other caveats, as well, which is why I’ve given up on getting it right:
 I suspect that there’s no way to do this without also keeping track of the list’s length. I considered using
takeWhile (\(x,_) > x /= 0)
instead oftake (fromIntegral $ l)
below, but that won’t work for lists containing the number 0. This isn’t really a dealbreaker, though, because we can useitot
andttoi
to encode and decode thelength
, respectively, which I’ve implemented below.  Because our
itot
function from above (which encodesInteger
s as(Integer,Integer)
) relies onsqrt
, which returns a finiteprecision floatingpoint number, recovering a[Integer]
value from itsInteger
representation breaks down for anything but the most basic lists. For example,(itolofi . lofitoi) [42,1337]
returns an empty list becauseitot
is unable to extract a reasonable list length from the incorrectlyroundedInteger
thatlofitoi
outputs. It would, however, be possible to fixitot
by implementing an integer square root algorithm.
itolofi :: Integer > [Integer]
itolofi i = map fst $ take (fromIntegral l) $ iterate (\(x,y) > itot y) (itot i')
where
(l,i') = itot i
lofitoi :: [Integer] > Integer
lofitoi is = ttoi (fromIntegral $ length is, foldr (\a b > ttoi (a,b)) 0 is)
In closing, thinking about how objects are represented in memory shows that the isomorphisms presented in this post aren’t really all that amazing: All types, in order to be usable at all, must be representable as some sequence of bits in memory. (Whether this sequence is actually sequential or obscured behind a web of pointers is irrelevant in this context – you could always “defrag” to make things sequential.) And “some sequence of bits in memory” is a good description of an arbitrarylength integer type such as Integer
.
This segues nicely into the final point I’d like to make: All of the above only works because Haskell’s Integer
s are arbitrarylength numbers. When instead using a fixedlength type like Int
, depending on the size of the numbers you’re working with, you’ll sooner or later run into overflow issues which completely break the isomorphisms presented in this article. As mentioned a few lines further up, our implementation of the isomorphism between Integer
and (Integer,Integer)
already exhibits this behavior due to the use of the sqrt
function.
Still, I hope these isomorphisms have refreshed your perspective on composite types and how to have some fun with them!
The code is available on GitHub.

This is an extension of Peano numbers. ↩

Or, without
flip
, as\x > replicate x ()
. Both variants also require afromIntegral
call to convert ourInteger
to theInt
thatreplicate
so badly craves as its first argument, but I’ve left that out for brevity, which is why I’m writing a long sentence about it in a footnote. ↩ 
If you’re familiar with how the runlength encoding step in JPEG compression works, you’ve already seen something similar: The zigzag pattern that turns each postDCT block into an array of roughly ordered weights is isomorphic to the Cantor pairing function. ↩