# The Strange Case of the Determinant of a Matrix of 1s and -1s

By Nick Higham and Alan Edelman (MIT)

In a 2005 talk the second author noted that the MATLAB det function returns an odd integer for a certain 27-by-27 matrix composed of $1$s and $-1$s:

>> A = edelman; % Set up the matrix.
>> format long g, format compact, det(A)
ans =
839466457497601


However, the determinant is, from its definition, a sum of an even number (27 factorial) of odd numbers, so is even. Indeed the correct determinant is 839466457497600.

At first sight, this example is rather troubling, since while MATLAB returns an integer, as expected, it is out by $1$. The determinant is computed as the product of the diagonal entries of the $U$ factor in the LU factorization with partial pivoting of $A$, and these entries are not all integers. Standard rounding error analysis shows that the relative error from forming that product is bounded by $nu/(1-nu)$, with $n=27$, where $u \approx 1.1 \times 10^{-16}$ is the unit roundoff, and this is comfortably larger than the actual relative error (which also includes the errors in computing $U$) of $6 \times 10^{-16}$. Therefore the computed determinant is well within the bounds of roundoff, and if the exact result had not been an integer the incorrect last decimal digit would hardly merit discussion.

However, this matrix has more up its sleeve. Let us compute the determinant using a different implementation of Gaussian elimination with partial pivoting, namely the function gep from the Matrix Computation Toolbox:

>> [Lp,Up,Pp] = gep(A,'p'); det(Pp)*det(Up)
ans =
839466457497600


Now we get the correct answer! To see what is happening, we can directly form the products of the diagonal elements of the $U$ factors:

>> [L,U,P] = lu(A);
>> d = diag(U); dp = diag(Up);
>> rel_diff_U_diags = norm((dp - d)./d,inf)
rel_diff_U_diags =
7.37206353875273e-16
>> [prod(d), prod(dp)]
ans =
-839466457497601          -839466457497600
>> [prod(d(end:-1:1)), prod(dp(end:-1:1))]
ans =
-839466457497600          -839466457497600


We see that even though the diagonals of the two $U$ factors differ by a small multiple of the unit roundoff, the computed products differ in the last decimal digit. If the product of the diagonal elements of $U$ is accumulated in the reverse order then the exact answer is obtained in both cases. Once again, while this behaviour might seem surprising, it is within the error bounds of a rounding error analysis.

The moral of this example is that we should not be misled by the integer nature of a result; in floating-point arithmetic it is relative error that should be judged.

Finally, we note that numerical evaluation of the determinant offers other types of interesting behaviour. Consider the Frank matrix: a matrix of integers that has determinant 1. What goes wrong here in the step from dimension 24 to 25?

>> A = gallery('frank',24); det(A)
ans =
0.999999999999996
>> A = gallery('frank',25); det(A)
ans =
143507521.082525


The Edelman matrix is available in the MATLAB function available in this gist, which is embedded below. A Julia notebook exploring the Edelman matrix is available here.

 function A = edelman %EDELMAN Alan Edelman's matrix for which det is computed as the wrong integer. % A = EDELMAN is a 27-by-27 matrix of 1s and -1s for which the % MATLAB det function returns an odd integer, though the exact % determinant is an even integer. A = [% 1 1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 1 1 1 -1 1 -1 1 1 1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 1 1 -1 1 1 1 -1 1 1 1 1 1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 1 1 1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 1 1 1 1 1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 1 1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 1 -1 1 1 1 1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 1 1 1 -1 1 1 1 -1 1 1 -1 1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 1 1 1 1 -1 1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 1 1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 1 1 -1 1 1 1 -1 -1 1 1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 1 1 -1 1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 1 1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 1 1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 1 1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 1 1 1 1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 1 -1 1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 1 -1 1 1 -1 1 1 -1 1 1 -1 1 1 -1 1 1 1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 1 1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 1 1 -1 1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 1 1 1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 1 -1 1 1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 1 1 1 1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 1 1 1 -1 1 1 1 1 1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 1 1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 -1 1 1 1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 1 1 -1 1 -1 1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 1 1 -1 1 -1 -1 1 -1 1 1 -1 -1 1 1 1 -1 1 1 -1 1 1 1 1 1 -1 1 -1 1 -1 1 1 -1 1];
view raw edelman.m hosted with ❤ by GitHub

# Fun Books for Learning Programming

I learned Fortran from the TV course and book by Jeff Rohl. Some years later I came across A FORTRAN Coloring Book by Roger Emanuel Kaufman (MIT Press, 1978). The text is entirely handwritten (even the copyright page), is illustrated with numerous cartoons, and is full of witty wordplay. Yet it imparts the basics of Fortran very well and I could have happily learned Fortran from it. It even describes some simple numerical methods, such as the bisection method. The book is one continuous text, with no chapters or sections, but it has a good index. I’ve long been a fan of the book and Des Higham, and I include three quotes from it in MATLAB Guide.

Kaufman’s book has attracted attention in cultural studies. In the article Bend Sinister: Monstrosity and Normative Effect in Computational Practice, Simon Yuill describes it as “the first published computing text to use cartoon and comic strip drawings as a pedagogic medium” and goes on to say “and it could be argued, is the archetype to the entire For Dummies series and all its numerous imitators”. I would add that the use of cartoons within magazine articles on computing was prevalent in the 1970s, notably in Creative Computing magazine, though I don’t recall anything comparable with Kaufman’s book.

A book in a similar vein and from the same era, is the handwritten Illustrating Basic by Donald Alcock (Cambridge University Press, 1977). It’s a bit like Kaufman without the jokes, and is organized into sections. This was the first in a series of such books, culminating in Illustrating C (1992). Like Kaufman’s book, Alcock’s contain nontrivial examples and are a good way for anyone to learn a programming language.

Thinking Forth by Leo Brodie, about the Forth language, is typeset but contains lots of cartoons and hand-drawn figures. It was originally published in 1984 and is now freely available under a Creative Commons license.

A more recent book with a similarly fun treatment is Land of Lisp by Conrad Barski (No Starch Press, 2011). It teaches Common Lisp, coding various games along the way. It’s typeset but is heavily illustrated with cartoons and finishes with a comic strip.