Bert's blog

The CMacIonize unit system

I have certainly mentioned the importance of units before. Units are not only important for physical reasons, because they are the things that link numbers that live in the pure world of mathematics to physical quantities that live in the real world. They are also important for practical reasons, because they are both so easy to deal with, as easy to neglect or accidentally get wrong.

That is why it is always a very good idea to think about units in an early stage of the development of a scientific code, so that they are there and you don’t need to worry about them in the future. And I would also strongly recommend to be consistent with the system of units that is used internally inside the code, so that the only way units appear explicitly is in the unit conversion for input and output values.

In this post, I will discuss the unit system I devised during the development of my simulation code CMacIonize, because I think it is fairly elegant and simple, yet also incredibly powerful. Within this unit system, adding new units is literally a one-liner, and most unit conversions are very conveniently hidden from developers by a clever use of C++ templates. I am not saying this is the ultimate unit system, but it is definitely something that has made my life a lot easier, and something I am proud of.


The CMacIonize unit system consists of two C++ header files with just over 700 lines of text in total, including Doxygen comment blocks, license headers and inline comments (and with a line width of 80 characters). It is hence not an awful lot of code. The two files contain the two essential parts of the unit system: a class that represents a unit (Unit.hpp), and a class that deals with the conversion between different units for the same quantity (or different quantities that are in some way compatible, like wavelength - a length -, frequency - an inverse time - and energy - mass times length squared divided by time squared - for light; UnitConverter.hpp).

Below, I will explain these two parts in more detail, starting with the easy one.

The Unit

A physical unit has two purposes. First of all, it needs to tell us what quantity we are dealing with: a length, time, mass, temperature, current or angle (these are the quantities used in CMacIonize), or a combination of these. Second, the unit tells us what the size of that specific quantity is in comparison with some reference, which we are free to choose.

In order to make abstraction of a unit, we hence need to store two pieces of information: the quantity the unit represents, and the value of that quantity compared to the reference. We also need to choose a suitable reference; in the case of CMacIonize I opted to use SI units (but I could have chosen any other system of units). In SI units:

  • length is given in m (metres)
  • time is given in s (seconds)
  • mass is given in kg (kilograms)
  • temperature is given in K (Kelvin)
  • current is given in A (Ampère)
  • angle is given in radians (no abbreviation here)

Representing the value of the quantity is relatively easy: we simply store the conversion factor from the specific unit represented by the Unit class as a floating point member variable. Representing the quantity is a bit more tricky, as the quantity could be any combination of basic quantities imaginable. Although that is a bit exaggerated; there are very strict rules about how basic quantities can be combined into new quantities: this can only happen by multiplying integer powers of basic quantities. For example, “kg m s” represents the unit of a new quantity (energy, this unit is sometimes also written as “J”), things like “kg s” are completely unacceptable for physical quantities.

In order to store information about the quantity a Unit represents, it is hence sufficient to store the integer exponents of the basic quantities that make up the derived quantity. The quantity for the energy unit “J” can then e.g. be represented as using the order of the basic quantities given above.

This way of storing the quantity also makes it very easy to manipulate the unit during physical operations: dividing an energy () by a velocity squared () is as easy as subtracting the exponents of the latter from those of the former: - a mass. Similarly, taking integer powers of a quantity is as simple as multiplying the exponents by that same power, as already illustrated in the previous example.

Most of what the Unit class does is implementing exactly this kind of functionality. It contains multiplication and division operators that correctly derive the new quantity that is the result of multiplying or dividing two quantities (and that also derives the correct new conversion factor by multiplying or dividing the two conversion factors), and a power operator that can raise a unit to an integer power. It also contains functionality to check whether two units are compatible (they represent the same quantity) or the same (they represent the same quantity and the same conversion factor).

The class also contains convenient functions to actually convert values: a multiplication operator that can convert a value from the unit represented by a specific Unit object to SI units, and a division operator that converts from SI units to the specific unit.

Lastly, the Unit class contains a to_string method that returns a string containing the conversion factor followed by a human readable representation of the unit, which is simply the SI units of the 6 basic quantities mentioned above raised to their respective integer power, separated by spaces. The order of the quantities is fixed to the order given above. Units for exponents that are zero are not present in the string, while exponents that are one are omitted from the string. The SI units are hard coded in this function, so the choice of reference unit systems is an essential part of the class.

The UnitConverter

The Unit class above contains everything that is needed to work with units, but does not contain any actual information about units that are not the reference SI units. It can represent a quantity and its unit and write out the SI representation of the quantity as a string, but it cannot parse a string and convert it into a unit, nor can it deal with units that are not the basic 6 SI unit symbols (like “J”, “erg” or “kpc”). These things are dealt with in the UnitConverter class.

Most of this class consists of hard coded information that is required to deal with additional quantities and units: an enum called Quantity that lists all physical quantities that we want to be able to use elsewhere in the code (I will come back to this later), a function that returns the Unit object corresponding to some unit symbol (like the “J” we encountered before), and a function that returns the basic SI unit string for every item in the Quantity enum (e.g. QUANTITY_ENERGY -> "kg m^2 s^-2"). If we want to add an additional unit symbol, this is simply a matter of adding an additional Unit entry in the first function. If we want to add an additional quantity, we simply add a corresponding entry in the enum and an SI unit representation in the second function.

In order to practically work with Unit objects, we need one additional element: a function that can parse a unit string that can contain any quantity into a valid Unit object. This function should take input that roughly matches the formatting rules of the to_string method in the Unit class, but should be more flexible, as it cannot enforce a specific order of unit symbols, and should be able to recognise unit symbols that are not basic SI unit symbols. This function itself is quite complicated (as string parsing tends to be), but essentially does nothing more than going through the string, symbol by symbol, calling the unit symbol to Unit object class for every symbol and then applying the power, multiplication and division operators on the combined unit to eventually end up with a single unit that represents the whole string. If a unit symbol is found that does not have an entry, an error message is shown; either the symbol is wrong (a typo?), or a new entry needs to be made for a unit that is not part of the code yet.

Using this get_unit function, we can convert any string representation of a unit into a Unit object that we can then use to make unit conversions from and to that unit, using the Unit class member functions. To make this process even easier, the UnitConverter class also contains a member function called convert that simply takes a value, its input unit string and a desired output unit string, and outputs the value of that quantity in the output units. If the given input and output units are not compatible (e.g. one is “J” - an energy - and the other is “kpc” - a length), then the function will yield an error message.

While this functions is already quite powerful, it requires two unit strings: one for the input and one for the output. If the output value is to be used internally, then we know what the output unit string should be, provided that we know what quantity our input value is. Or in other words, we only need the output unit string to determine the quantity. We can also provide this information in a different way: using the quantities listed in the Quantity enum. To this end, the UnitConverter class contains additional member functions to_unit and to_SI that simply take a value and its input or desired output unit, and additionally take the quantity as a template argument.

The nice thing about these template functions is that they can be used for parameter input. In this case, the value and unit string are read in from some user provided source (a parameter file or simply the command line), and the code developer simply needs to specify the quantity that needs to be read in. The template functions will then automatically take care of the unit string parsing, and will check if the resulting unit is compatible with the desired quantity, before automatically converting the value to the internal SI units. This feature is used in almost all CMacIonize classes; most classes have a so called parameter file constructor that simply calls the normal class constructor using values read from the parameter file. Values that represent physical quantities will use a template get_physical_value or get_physical_vector function of the ParameterFile class that accepts a Quantity as template parameter. These functions will then call the to_SI member function of the UnitConverter class to parse the parameter value into an SI value. From the point of view of the developer, no units or conversion factors are present in the constructor, yet they are still invoked correctly. And the input unit is even validated against the desired quantity to check if it makes sense.

What about these weird quantities that are interchangeable: like wavelength, frequency and energy for radiation? To deal with these, the UnitConverter class contains one additional function called try_conversion, that is called whenever the convert, to_SI or to_unit functions detect incompatible units. This function contains a hard coded list of A and B quantities that are interchangeable, and the conversion factors between these. It will simply loop over this list and check whether the input and output unit strings are compatible with A and B, or B and A respectively. If this is the case, the conversion factor is used to make the conversion between quantities, before the usual unit conversion is applied. If no matching entries are found in the list, an error message is displayed.

What about the overhead?

A significant fraction of the unit functionality is implemented using inlined operators that have no significant overhead at all: the compiler is usually capable of optimising these out to the raw unit conversion. There is a significant overhead associated with the unit string parsing however, so all functions that invoke this in any way (which means: almost all of the UnitConverter functionality) will be relatively slow. Not so slow that it cannot be used to read all of the input parameters in this way, but slow enough that you really don’t want to use these functions in the inner bits of the inner loops of the code that take up most of the computation time. If you do need to do some unit conversions in a computationally intensive part of the code (e.g. if you are reading in a significantly sized data table that contains weird units), then you really need to make sure that you precompute the conversion factors using a few calls to the appropriate UnitConverter function before the loop, and then use that factor inside the loop.

What about the overhead of writing this unit system? All in all, I think writing this took a day or two (maybe three), including writing a simple unit test that guarantees all my units and quantities are implemented correctly. Judging from my experiences with codes that do not have such a user friendly unit system, I think I already made up a multiple of that in time not lost trying to figure out the units of my results, or trying to debug faulty unit conversions. So it was definitely totally worth it.

Professional astronomer.