Multi dimensional arrays in Perl
Technically speaking there are no multi-dimensional arrays in Perl, but you can use arrays in Perl to act as if they had more than one dimension.
In Perl each element of an array can be a reference to another array, but syntactically they would look like a two-dimensional array.
Creating a matrix in Perl
Let's see the following code:
#!/usr/bin/perl use strict; use warnings; my @matrix; $matrix = 'zero-zero'; $matrix = 'one-one'; $matrix = 'one-two';
We just created an array called @matrix. It is a regular one-dimensional array in Perl, but we accessed it as if it was two dimensional.
What do you think the following line will do?
I know, it was a trick question. The program won't even compile. You will get the following error:
Global symbol "$matrix" requires explicit package name at ... line .. Execution of ... aborted due to compilation errors.
If you read about the global symbol requires explicit package name error, you will see that it basically means you have not declared a variable. In this case $matrix. Indeed, if you read how to access array elements in Perl, you will see that you'd access the first element of the @matrix by using $matrix. Notice the square brackets after the variable name!
There are 3 things here that can be a bit confusing:
@matrix, $matrix and $matrix. The first two are related. The third is unrelated. The first one is an array. The second one is an element of an array and the third one is an unrelated scalar. If you declare an array such as @matrix you can automatically use $matrix to access the first element, but if you'd also like to use $matrix you'd need to declare that separately.
That leads us to warning. While Perl is OK with you having the exact same variable name for an array and for a scalar, it is strongly recommended you don't have them in the same code. It can just confuse the reader.
After this short detour, let's go back to our example:
Let's see what would the following print:
print "$matrix\n"; # ARRAY(0x814dd90) print "$matrix\n"; # zero-zero print "$matrix\n"; # one-one
The first line prints ARRAY(0x814dd90). As I mentioned, Perl does not have multi-dimensional arrays. What you see here is that the first element of the @matrix array is a reference to an internal, so-called anonymous array that holds the actual values. The ARRAY(0x814dd90) is the address of that internal address in the memory. You can't do much with this, except of knowing that you probably need to "de-reference" that address. In our case that de-referencing is done by the addition of another pair of square brackets.
That way you can get back the original values we put in the array.
Visualizing a multi-dimensional array
There is a module called Data::Dumper, which comes with Perl and that can provide a reasonably readable view of the matrix we created. In order to use it, you first need to load it to memory with the use statement. Then calling the Dumper function and passing a reference to it. The back-slash \, just before the @matrix, creates a reference to the array. The Dumper function serializes the data structure and returns a string, which is then printed by the print function.
use Data::Dumper qw(Dumper); print Dumper \@matrix;
The output will look like this:
$VAR1 = [ [ 'zero-zero' ], [ undef, 'one-one', 'one-two' ] ];
The $VAR1 at the beginning is just a standard name Data::Dumper uses. You can disregard it for now. the rest of the output shows 3 pairs of square brackets. The outermost pair represents the main array we call @matrix. the first internal pair holds a single value (zero-zero). This represents the first row in the matrix. The second internal pair has 3 values. The first one is undef, this is the place of $matrix where we have not assigned a value. The other two we assigned.
Two dimensional array or what?
As you can see this resembles a two dimensional array, but its shape is not rectangular, as you would expect from a matrix. The first row has only one element while the second row has 3. (even if one of them is undef).
In a similar way there could be elements in the @matrix array that have not other dimension. For example we could write:
$matrix = 'two';
which would change the output of Data::Dumper to this:
$VAR1 = [ [ 'zero-zero' ], [ undef, 'one-one', 'one-two' ], 'two' ];
Here the outer array has 3 elements. The first two are the internal arrays, and the 3rd one is a simple scalar.
So one of the "rows" in the "matrix" does not even have a dimension.
More than 2 dimensions?
What if we add the following code?
$matrix = 130; $matrix = 131;
The Dumper output will look like this:
$VAR1 = [ [ 'zero-zero' ], [ undef, 'one-one', 'one-two', [ 130, 131 ] ], 'two' ];
Look, the second internal array now has a 4th element and that element itself, is an array (or rather a reference to an array).
An array in Perl can have any number of "dimensions" and it does not need to form a "regular" shape. Each element can have an internal array. And each element of the internal array can have its own internal array and so on.
Data::Dumper can help us figure out what is in such a data structure.
Published on 2013-06-08