Lambda Screen

Fractals in Pure Lambda Calculus

Marvin Borner


Pure lambda calculus has encodings for many different data structures like lists, numbers, strings, and trees. Wrapped in monadic IO, lambda calculus provides a great interface for computation – as can be seen in user-friendly syntactic variants like my programming language bruijn. Such simple languages, however, typically don’t support graphical output (aside from ASCII art).

I present the “Lambda Screen”, a way to use terms of pure lambda calculus for generating images. I also show how recursive terms (induced by fixed-point combinators) can lead to infinitely detailed fractals.

If you want to skip the details or want to figure out its inner workings yourself, go to my reference implementation (source-code) and flip through the examples.


A screen is a term λx.(x tl tr bl br),\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{tl}\ \textrm{tr}\ \textrm{bl}\ \textrm{br}), where the terms tl, tr, bl, and br represent the top-left, top-right, bottom-left, and bottom-right quadrants of the image. Each of these terms can either be another screen, or a pixel.

A pixel is either on (white) or off (black). In its on state, a pixel is defined as the k combinator w=λw b.w\textrm{w}=\lambda w\ b.w In its off state, it’s the ki combinator b=λw b.b\textrm{b}=\lambda w\ b.b This decision was made for simplicity and could be any other state encoding, including ones of arbitrary size and color.


Click the “Render” button to see the results.


For this project, I decided that the entire behavior of the screen is defined by a single closed lambda term. Upon execution of the renderer, this function gets applied to the default empty screen (four white squares). This enables the use of point-free/Tacit programming (e.g. using combinators), such that you don’t necessarily have to construct screens/colors at all.

Through slightly modified beta-reduction, the screen gets updated in-place while the term converges to its normal form. High rendering depths or diverging behavior may stop the renderer before convergence is reached.

Note that the renderer would also work with normal beta-reduction until convergence. The additional steps were only made to add support for in-place rendering of diverging terms.


The in-place reduction-rendering works as follows (written as pseudo-Haskell using de Bruijn indices; actually implemented in JavaScript).

Figure out if a term looks like a screen:

isScreen (Abs (App (App (App (App (Idx 0) _) _) _) _)) = True
isScreen _                                             = False

Color the quadrants depending on pixel state (or grey if term is not yet figured out):

quadrantColor (Abs (Abs (Idx 1))) = White
quadrantColor (Abs (Abs (Idx 0))) = Black
quadrantColor _                   = Grey

Reduce to normal form (or loop endlessly):

nf (Abs t)   = Abs $ nf t
nf (App l r) = case nf l of
  Abs t -> nf $ subst t r
  t     -> App t (nf r)
nf t         = t

Reduce to weak-head normal form:

whnf (App l r) = case whnf l of
  Abs t -> whnf $ subst t r
  t     -> App t r
whnf t         = t

Reduce to screen normal form (either λx.((((x tl) tr) bl) br)\lambda x.((((x\ \textrm{tl})\ \textrm{tr})\ \textrm{bl})\ \textrm{br}), λw b.w\lambda w\ b.w, or λw b.b\lambda w\ b.b):

snf t = case whnf t of
  Abs b -> case Abs $ whnf b of
    t@(Abs (Abs _)) -> nf t -- not a screen!
    t ->
      let go t | isScreen t = t
          go (App l r)      = case whnf l of
            (Abs t) -> go $ subst t r
            t       -> go $ App t (whnf r)
          go (Abs t) = go $ Abs $ whnf t
      in  go t
  _ -> error "not a screen/pixel"

Main reduction and rendering loop (assuming drawing functions that use and return some ctx):

reduce ((t, ctx) : ts) | quadrantColor t != Grey = reduce ts
reduce ((t, ctx) : ts) = if isScreen $ snf t
    let (App (App (App (App _ tl) tr) bl) br) = t
    in  reduce ts
          ++ [ (tl, drawTopLeft ctx (quadrantColor tl))
             , (tr, drawTopRight ctx (quadrantColor tr))
             , (bl, drawBottomLeft ctx (quadrantColor bl))
             , (br, drawBottomRight ctx (quadrantColor br))
  else do -- this is pseudo-Haskell after all
    drawAt ctx (quadrantColor t)
    reduce ts

-- and, finally:
main t = reduce [(t, Ctx (canvas, width, height))]

See my reference implementation for more details.


Sierpiński Triangle

We can’t trivially draw the classic “standing-up” Sierpiński triangle, since drawing the diagonals over square borders would get quite complex.

Instead, we can draw a rotated variant using a simple rewrite rule:

Every black square stays black forever; each (sub-)quadrant gets recursively applied to this rewrite rule.

Translated to lambda calculus, we get the following:

triangle=λx.(x triangle b triangle triangle)    triangle=λ_.(λt x.(x t b t t)) \begin{aligned} \textrm{triangle}&=\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{triangle}\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{triangle}\ \textrm{triangle})\\ \implies\textrm{triangle}'&=\lambda \_.(\textrm{y}\ \lambda t\ x.(x\ t\ \textrm{b}\ t\ t)) \end{aligned}

Or, golfed in binary lambda calculus to 51 bits:


Here, the rendering is stopped automatically after the smallest resolution of the canvas is reached. Note how the triangle structure appears even though we only ever explicitly draw black pixels. This is because the unresolved recursive triangle\textrm{triangle} calls get (temporarily) drawn as grey until they also get reduced. If the reduction wouldn’t be stopped, the canvas would slowly become black entirely.


In each iteration, the T-Square adds new overlapping squares to the quadrants of every square already drawn. For lambda screen we can interpret this as a recursive split into smaller squares, where in each iteration one of the quadrants (depending on its position) gets drawn as black.

The first three iterations look something like this (only black and non-wavy)

We can model this iteration as a mutual recurrence relation:

tl=λx.(x tl tr bl b)tr=λx.(x tl tr b br)bl=λx.(x tl b bl br)br=λx.(x b tr bl br)tsquare=λx.(x tl tr bl br) \begin{align*} \textrm{tl}&=\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{tl}\ \textrm{tr}\ \textrm{bl}\ \textrm{b})\\ \textrm{tr}&=\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{tl}\ \textrm{tr}\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{br})\\ \textrm{bl}&=\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{tl}\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{bl}\ \textrm{br})\\ \textrm{br}&=\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{tr}\ \textrm{bl}\ \textrm{br})\\ \textrm{tsquare}&=\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{tl}\ \textrm{tr}\ \textrm{bl}\ \textrm{br}) \end{align*}

This relation can be solved using a variadic fixed-point combinator:

tl=λtl tr bl br.λx.(x tl tr bl b)tr=λtl tr bl br.λx.(x tl tr b br)bl=λtl tr bl br.λx.(x tl b bl br)br=λtl tr bl br.λx.(x b tr bl br)mutual=(y* λa.(a tl λb.(b tr λc.(c bl λd.(d br nil))))) \begin{align*} \textrm{tl}'&=\lambda tl\ tr\ bl\ br.\lambda x.(x\ tl\ tr\ bl\ \textrm{b})\\ \textrm{tr}'&=\lambda tl\ tr\ bl\ br.\lambda x.(x\ tl\ tr\ \textrm{b}\ br)\\ \textrm{bl}'&=\lambda tl\ tr\ bl\ br.\lambda x.(x\ tl\ \textrm{b}\ bl\ br)\\ \textrm{br}'&=\lambda tl\ tr\ bl\ br.\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{b}\ tr\ bl\ br) \end{align*}\\ \textrm{mutual}=(\textrm{y*}\ \lambda a.(a\ \textrm{tl}'\ \lambda b.(b\ \textrm{tr}'\ \lambda c.(c\ \textrm{bl}'\ \lambda d.(d\ \textrm{br}'\ \textrm{nil})))))

Thus giving us the final term tsquare\textrm{tsquare}', where the indices indicate the nnth head selection of Church lists:

tsquare=λ_ x.(x mutual0 mutual1 mutual2 mutual3)\textrm{tsquare}'=\lambda \_\ x.(x\ \textrm{mutual}_0\ \textrm{mutual}_1\ \textrm{mutual}_2\ \textrm{mutual}_3)

“Sierpiński Carpet”

The exact drawing of the Sierpiński Carpet is left as an exercise to the reader.

Since it’s a bit more straightforward, I decided to generate a slight variant1 where each quadrant isn’t split into 9 but 4 quadrants per iteration.

Beautifully drawn visualization of the first three iterations. The red marks will be stable (non-recursive) black squares, while the grey squares will be stable white squares. Green and yellow lines added to indicate the splitting of squares at each level.

Each new stable quadrant will be one of the following:

sub-tl=λx.(x b w w λy.(y w w w b))sub-tr=λx.(x w b λy.(y w w b w) w)sub-bl=λx.(x w λy.(y w b w w) b w)sub-br=λx.(x λy.(y b w w w) w w b) \begin{align*} \textrm{sub-tl}&=\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{w}\ \textrm{w}\ \lambda y.(y\ \textrm{w}\ \textrm{w}\ \textrm{w}\ \textrm{b}))\\ \textrm{sub-tr}&=\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{w}\ \textrm{b}\ \lambda y.(y\ \textrm{w}\ \textrm{w}\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{w})\ \textrm{w})\\ \textrm{sub-bl}&=\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{w}\ \lambda y.(y\ \textrm{w}\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{w}\ \textrm{w})\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{w})\\ \textrm{sub-br}&=\lambda x.(x\ \lambda y.(y\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{w}\ \textrm{w}\ \textrm{w})\ \textrm{w}\ \textrm{w}\ \textrm{b}) \end{align*}

We again model the generation as a mutual recurrence relation:

tl=λx.(x tl tr bl sub-br)tr=λx.(x tl tr sub-bl br)bl=λx.(x tl sub-tr bl br)br=λx.(x sub-tl tr bl br)carpet=λx.(x tl tr bl br) \begin{align*} \textrm{tl}&=\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{tl}\ \textrm{tr}\ \textrm{bl}\ \textrm{sub-br})\\ \textrm{tr}&=\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{tl}\ \textrm{tr}\ \textrm{sub-bl}\ \textrm{br})\\ \textrm{bl}&=\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{tl}\ \textrm{sub-tr}\ \textrm{bl}\ \textrm{br})\\ \textrm{br}&=\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{sub-tl}\ \textrm{tr}\ \textrm{bl}\ \textrm{br})\\ \textrm{carpet}&=\lambda x.(x\ \textrm{tl}\ \textrm{tr}\ \textrm{bl}\ \textrm{br}) \end{align*}

Giving us, as before, the final term:

mutual=(y* λa.(a tl λb.(b tr λc.(c bl λd.(d br nil)))))carpet=λ_ x.(x mutual0 mutual1 mutual2 mutual3) \begin{align*} \textrm{mutual}&=(\textrm{y*}\ \lambda a.(a\ \textrm{tl}'\ \lambda b.(b\ \textrm{tr}'\ \lambda c.(c\ \textrm{bl}'\ \lambda d.(d\ \textrm{br}'\ \textrm{nil})))))\\ \textrm{carpet}'&=\lambda \_\ x.(x\ \textrm{mutual}_0\ \textrm{mutual}_1\ \textrm{mutual}_2\ \textrm{mutual}_3) \end{align*}

There’s obviously huge potential for golfing the term size – so if you’re into that, have fun!

Cantor Dust

The Cantor dust is another great example of how infinitely detailed structures appear as unreduced (grey) quadrants when reduction inevitably gets halted.

In this case, a square gets recursively split into four new squares. Since we do the same split four times, we can construct the new quadrant using a quadruple\textrm{quadruple} function:

quadruple=λq x.(x q q q q)cantor=λx.(tl tr bl br)tl=(quadruple (λx.x cantor b b b)tr=(quadruple (λx.x b cantor b b)bl=(quadruple (λx.x b b cantor b)br=(quadruple (λx.x b b b cantor) \begin{align*} \textrm{quadruple}&=\lambda q\ x.(x\ q\ q\ q\ q)\\ \textrm{cantor}&=\lambda x.(\textrm{tl}\ \textrm{tr}\ \textrm{bl}\ \textrm{br})\\ \textrm{tl}&=(\textrm{quadruple}\ (\lambda x.x\ \textrm{cantor}\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{b})\\ \textrm{tr}&=(\textrm{quadruple}\ (\lambda x.x\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{cantor}\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{b})\\ \textrm{bl}&=(\textrm{quadruple}\ (\lambda x.x\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{cantor}\ \textrm{b})\\ \textrm{br}&=(\textrm{quadruple}\ (\lambda x.x\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{cantor})\\ \end{align*}

After removing the recursive calls using y\textrm{y}, we get

  *\ *\ *

All of the examples above (and more) can also be found, rendered, and modified here.


Lastly, here are some useful terms for experimentation (also available in the “template” preset).

Checking whether a pixel pp is black or white: w?=λp.pb?=λp.(p b w) \begin{align*} \textrm{w?}&=\lambda p.p\\ \textrm{b?}&=\lambda p.(p\ \textrm{b}\ \textrm{w}) \end{align*}

Inverting the state of pixel pp: invert=c=λp x y.(p y x)\textrm{invert}=\textrm{c}=\lambda p\ x\ y.(p\ y\ x)

Getting the term at a position pp of screen ss:

tl=λtl tr bl br.tltr=λtl tr bl br.trbl=λtl tr bl br.blbr=λtl tr bl br.brget=λp s.(s p) \textrm{tl}=\lambda tl\ tr\ bl\\quad \textrm{tr}=\lambda tl\ tr\ bl\\\ \textrm{bl}=\lambda tl\ tr\ bl\\quad \textrm{br}=\lambda tl\ tr\ bl\\\ \textrm{get}=\lambda p\ s.(s\ p)

Replacing a quadrant of screen ss with qq:

tl!=λs q.(s λtl tr bl br x.(x q tr bl br))tr!=λs q.(s λtl tr bl br x.(x tl q bl br))bl!=λs q.(s λtl tr bl br x.(x tl tr q br))br!=λs q.(s λtl tr bl br x.(x tl tr bl q)) \begin{align*} \textrm{tl!}&=\lambda s\ q.(s\ \lambda tl\ tr\ bl\ br\ x.(x\ q\ tr\ bl\ br))\\ \textrm{tr!}&=\lambda s\ q.(s\ \lambda tl\ tr\ bl\ br\ x.(x\ tl\ q\ bl\ br))\\ \textrm{bl!}&=\lambda s\ q.(s\ \lambda tl\ tr\ bl\ br\ x.(x\ tl\ tr\ q\ br))\\ \textrm{br!}&=\lambda s\ q.(s\ \lambda tl\ tr\ bl\ br\ x.(x\ tl\ tr\ bl\ q))\\ \end{align*}

Applying each quadrant of a screen ss to a function ff:

map=λf s.(s λtl tr bl br.λx.(x (f tl) (f tr) (f bl) (f br)))\textrm{map}=\lambda f\ s.(s\ \lambda tl\ tr\ bl\ br.\lambda x.(x\ (f\ tl)\ (f\ tr)\ (f\ bl)\ (f\ br)))

Of course you could also use the definition of any function in bruijn’s standard library.

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I’ve also applied for a talk about this topic at GPN22 in Karlsruhe, so you may see me there as well. (EDIT: here is the talk recording)

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I haven’t posted in a while, mainly due to university and work, but also because I worked on some of my projects:

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