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  Gamma function

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Viktor T. Toth
web: http://www.vttoth.com/

Plot of he Gamma function

No wonder mathematicians find numbers to be the passion of a lifetime. Deceptively simple things can lead to such amazing complexity, to intriguing links between seemingly unconnected concepts.

Take the simple concept of the factorial. The factorial of a positive integer, n, is defined as the product of all the integers between 1 and n inclusive. Thus, for instance, the factorial of 5 is 5!=1×2×3×4×5, or 120. Because n!=n×(n-1)!, and conversely, (n-1)!=n!/n, it is possible to define 0! as 1!/1, or 1.

If you plot the factorial of integers on a graph, you'll notice that the points you plotted will be along what appears to be some kind of an exponential curve. In any case, it looks very much possible to connect the points with a smooth line. This begs the question: might it be possible to extend the definition of the factorial and create a smooth function that has a value for all real numbers, not just integers, but for integers, its value is equal to that of the factorial itself?

The answer is a resounding yes; such a function indeed exists. In fact, the so-called Gamma function extends the definition of the factorial to the entire complex plane. In other words, while the factorial is defined only for non-negative integers, the Gamma function is defined for any complex number z as long as z is not a negative integer.


The Gamma function is defined by the following integral:


For all complex numbers z, the following recurrence relation is true:


Consequently, for positive integers:


Some very helpful relationships exist between the Gamma function values for various arguments. For instance, the following relationship makes it possible to compute the Gamma function for a negative argument easily:


But how do you actually compute the Gamma function? The definition integral is not very useful; to produce an accurate result, an insanely high number of terms would have to be added during some numerical integration procedure. There must be some other way; there indeed is another way, several other ways in fact, each yielding useful algorithms for handheld calculators.

The Numerical Recipes Solution

Back in 1979, when I was possessed with the desire to squeeze a Gamma function implementation into the 72 programming steps of my tiny calculator, I could not find any ready reference on numerical approximations of this function. Eventually, I came across a 1955 Hungarian book on differential and integral calculus, which provided a usable approximation formula. Being theoretical in nature, the book offered not only no hints on efficient computation of the function, it didn't even provide numerical approximations of the coefficients in the formula; that was all left to the reader to work out (or to not work out, as might be the case, since theoretical mathematicians rarely sink to the level of actually working out a numeric result). Work it out I did, making my little calculator run for several days from its wall charger, while it calculated some of those coefficients. Eventually I had my result: a 71-step program that provided 8 or more digits of precision for real z's in the range of 0.5 < z < 1.5. From these values, it is possible to compute the Gamma function of any real number using the recurrence relation.

As it turns out, while my approximation is not a bad one, there's a much better method for calculating the Gamma function. Numerical Recipes in C (2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 1992) demonstrates a much more efficient algorithm, the so-called Lanczos approximation for computing the Gamma function for any positive argument (indeed, for any complex argument with a nonnegative real part) to a high level of accuracy. Here is their magic formula, computing the Gamma function with an error that's smaller than |epsilon|<2*10^-10 for any complex z for which Re z > 0:



p0 = 1.000000000190015
p1 = 76.18009172947146
p2 = -86.50532032941677
p3 = 24.01409824083091
p4 =  -1.231739572450155
p5 = 1.208650973866179 · 10-3
p6 = -5.395239384953 · 10-6

Примечание: более получить более общую формулу наряду с некоторой интересной информацией и исходниками можно в оригинальной статье Numerical Recipeszip

The calculation can be simplified resulting the following formula:

Gamma approximation

q0 = 75122.6331530
q1 = 80916.6278952
q2 = 36308.2951477
q3 = 8687.24529705
q4 = 1168.92649479
q5 = 83.8676043424
q6 = 2.50662827511

The Lanczos Approximation

Numerical Recipes neglects to mention an important fact: that the Lanczos approximation (A Precision Approximation of the Gamma Function J. SIAM Numer. Anal. Ser. B, Vol. 1 1964. pp. 86-96) can be used with other choices of values. It is possible to derive simpler versions with fewer coefficients; it is also possible to develop extremely accurate versions. As a matter of fact, the Lanczos approximation can be used to compute the Gamma function to arbitrary precision. I am grateful to Paul Godfrey for providing me with the details that are presented here.

The Lanczos approximation can, in essence, be reduced to a simple vector inner product and then some additional elementary computations:

ln G(z) = ln ZP + (z + 0.5)ln(z + g - 0.5) - (z + g + 0.5)

Where Z is an n-dimensional row vector constructed from the function argument, z:

Z = [ 1  1/(z+1)  1/(z+2)  ...   1/(z+n-1) ]

And P is an n-dimensional column vector constructed as the product of several n×n matrices and the n-dimensional column vector F:

P = D·B·C·F


B(i,j) = 1 if i = 0; -1^(j-i)*Comb(i+j-1,j-i) if i>0 and j>=i; 0 otherwise

C is a matrix containing coefficients from Chebyshev polynomials:

C(i,j) = 0.5 if i=j=0; 0 if j>i; -1^(i-j)*Sigma(k=0..i)Comb(2i,2k)*Comb(k,k+j-i) otherwise


D(i,j) = 0 if i != j; 1 if i=j=0; -1 if i=j=1; D(i-1,i-1)*2*(2i-1)/(i-1) if i=j, i>1

F(i) = 2 if i = 0; 2a!/a!/2^2a*exp(a+g+0.5)*(a+g+0.5)^(-a-0.5)

and g is an arbitrary real parameter, n is an integer. For suitable choices of g and n, very good precision can be obtained. The typical error can be computed as follows:

E = C·F

|epsilon| = |  [g*sqrt(pi) - Sigma(i=0,n-1) -1^i * Ei]*pi/2*sqrt(1/2e) |

I endeavoured to follow up on Godfrey's work and wrote an arbitrary precision implementation of the Lanczos approximation in the C++ language, utilizing the GMP multi-precision library and my custom C++ wrapper classes for the functions contained therein. This arbitrary precision implementation enabled me to compute, for instance, the Gamma function of 101 (i.e., 100!) to full integral precision, i.e., to a precision better than 158 significant digits.

On a more mundane level, my implementation also allowed me to experiment with various sets of coefficients, trying to find the most accurate and economical version of the Lanczos approximation for pocket calculators. I indeed found a set of only 4 coefficients that has a computed precision of |epsilon|<2·10-7, but in practice, appears to yield more than 8 significant digits for all positive real arguments. The precision is further increased when 5 or 6 coefficients are used:

n 4 5 6
g 3.65 4.35 5.15
p0 2.50662846436560184574 2.50662828350136765681 2.50662827563479526904
p1 41.4174045302370911317 92.2070484521121938211 225.525584619175212544
p2 -27.0638924937115168658 -83.1776370828788963029 -268.295973841304927459
p3 2.23931796330266601246 14.8028319307817071942 80.9030806934622512966
p4 N/A -0.220849707953311479372 -5.00757863970517583837
p5 N/A N/A 0.0114684895434781459556
|epsilon| 2·10-7 1·10-8 3·10-11

The simplicity of the formula for n=4 makes it suitable for use with most programmable calculators, including some of the simplest models; and that includes my old OEM Commodore machine. Which means the end of my quest after more than 20 years of programming: I finally have a "perfect" method of computing the Gamma function, to the maximum precision possible, on my first programmable calculator.

Stirling's Formula

When great accuracy isn't required, a much simpler approximation exists for the generalized factorial: Stirling's formula. In its original form, this is what this formula looks like:

Stirling's formula

Unfortunately, this formula isn't particularly accurate. A simple modification, however, can make it accurate to three or four significant digits for most arguments, making it suitable for many applications:

Modified Stirling's formula

These variants may make you wonder: are there more accurate versions of Stirling's formula? Indeed there are. Here is a generalized version for the logarithm of the Gamma function:

Extended Stirling's formula

In this formula, the coefficients Bn are derived from the so-called Bernoulli polynomials. The can easily be calculated from the following equations (in which you'll no doubt recognize those good old ordinary binomial coefficients):

1 + 2B1 = 0
1 + 3B1 + 3B2 = 0
1 + 4B1 + 6B2 + 4B3 = 0
1 + 5B1 + 10B2 + 10B3 + 5B4 = 0

And so on. The first few Bk's are: B1=-1/2, B2=1/6, B3=0, B4=-1/30, B5=0, B6=1/42,...

Stirling's formula is an odd bird. What you see above may suggest that the absolute value of B's get ever smaller as the index increases, and that therefore, Stirling's formula converges. This is not so; after B6 in fact the absolute value of these B's begins to increase (e.g., B8=-1/30) . After a while, the B's will get very large, and subsequent sums in the approximation will swing around ever more wildly. For instance, B98 is approximately 1.1318×1076! Still, Stirling's formula can be used to approximate the Gamma function quite nicely if you don't sum too many elements of the series. In fact, the higher the real part of z is, the more accurate the formula becomes... so one trick for the case of a small Re z is to evaluate Stirling's formula for z+n, and then divide the result by z(z+1)(z+2)...(z+n-1).

One particular set of coefficients is easy to remember, procudes a relatively compact version of Stirling's formula, and yields very good accuracy for arguments over 5:

lnG(z) = z*ln(z)-z+ln(sqrt(2pi)/z)+1/1188z^9-1/1680z^7+1/1260z^5-1/360z^3+1/12z

While the Lanczos approximation may be somewhat more accurate and compact, it requires several floating point constants that may be difficult to remember, and take up precious (program or registry) memory on your calculator. So in many cases, using Stirling's formula may be preferable. However, it should not be forgotten that even with corrections, it remains inaccurate for small arguments.

The Incomplete Gamma Function

A close relative to the Gamma function is the incomplete Gamma function. Its name is due to the fact that it is defined with the same integral expression as the Gamma function, but the infinite integration limit is replaced by a finite number:

Incomplete Gamma function

The incomplete Gamma function can be approximated fairly rapidly using an iterative method:

Incomplete Gamma function approximation

The magnitude of successive terms quickly diminishes as n increases; 8-12 digit accuracy is achieved for most values of xand a after no more than a few hundred terms (often less than a hundred) are added.

The incomplete Gamma function can also be used to approximate the value of the Gamma function itself, by selecting a suitable high integration limit x. For a<50, x=30, 8-digit accuracy is achieved.