Thursday, February 27, 2014

How to Succeed at Recursion Without Really Recursing

Mike Vanier (via @CompSciFact):

The Y combinator is a higher-order function. It takes a single argument, which is a function that isn't recursive. It returns a version of the function which is recursive. We will walk through this process of generating recursive functions from non-recursive ones using Y in great detail below, but that's the basic idea.

More generally, Y gives us a way to get recursion in a programming language that supports first-class functions but that doesn't have recursion built in to it. So what Y shows us is that such a language already allows us to define recursive functions, even though the language definition itself says nothing about recursion. This is a Beautiful Thing: it shows us that functional programming alone can allow us to do things that we would never expect to be able to do (and it's not the only example of this).

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