Names, definitions, and the global environment in Scheme (SICP)

” A critical aspect of a programming language is the means it provides for using names to refer to computational objects. We say that the name identifies a variable whose value is the object.

In the Scheme dialect of Lisp, we name things with define. Typing

(define size 2)

causes the interpreter to associate the value 2 with the name size. Once the name size has been associated with the number 2, we can refer to the value 2 by name:


(* 5 size)

Here are further examples of the use of define:

(define pi 3.14159)
(define radius 10)
(* pi (* radius radius))

(define circumference (* 2 pi radius))

define is our language’s simplest means of abstraction, for it allows us to use simple names to refer to the results of compound operations, such as the circumference computed above. In general, computational objects may have very complex structures, and it would be extremely inconvenient to have to remember and repeat their details each time we want to use them. Indeed, complex programs are constructed by building, step by step, computational objects of increasing complexity. The interpreter makes this step-by-step program construction particularly convenient because name-object associations can be created incrementally in successive interactions. This feature encourages the incremental development and testing of programs and is largely responsible for the fact that a Lisp program usually consists of a large number of relatively simple procedures.

It should be clear that the possibility of associating values with symbols and later retrieving them means that the interpreter must maintain some sort of memory that keeps track of the name-object pairs. This memory is called the environment (more precisely the global environment, since we will see later that a computation may involve a number of different environments).”

Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (SICP), ‘1.1.2 Naming and the Environment

The development of Lisp as a symbol-manipulation language (SICP)

“Despite its inception as a mathematical formalism, Lisp is a practical programming language. A Lisp interpreter is a machine that carries out processes described in the Lisp language. The first Lisp interpreter was implemented by McCarthy with the help of colleagues and students in the Artificial Intelligence Group of the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics and in the MIT Computation Center. Lisp, whose name is an acronym for LISt Processing, was designed to provide symbol-manipulating capabilities for attacking programming problems such as the symbolic differentiation and integration of algebraic expressions. It included for this purpose new data objects known as atoms and lists, which most strikingly set it apart from all other languages of the period.

Lisp was not the product of a concerted design effort. Instead, it evolved informally in an experimental manner in response to users’ needs and to pragmatic implementation considerations. Lisp’s informal evolution has continued through the years, and the community of Lisp users has traditionally resisted attempts to promulgate any “official” definition of the language. This evolution, together with the flexibility and elegance of the initial conception, has enabled Lisp, which is the second oldest language in widespread use today (only¬† Fortran is older), to continually adapt to encompass the most modern ideas about program design. Thus, Lisp is by now a family of dialects, which, while sharing most of the original features, may differ from one another in significant ways.”

Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, ‘Chapter 1: Building Abstractions with Procedures