Lambda Calculus 1 - Syntax

The word 'lambda' comes up more and more the longer you work as a programmer. There it is as a keyword in Python for an anonymous function. Same again in Scheme. Oh look, there it is in Ruby. Look at the logos for Racket, Clojure, MIT. Lambdas everywhere. The interest/obsession goes back to the mathematical roots of Lisp, specifically Alonzo Church's lambda calculus.


Church was researching the foundations of mathematics - particularly computation. The notation he came up with is a way of expressing any computation at all - if a computer can do it, it can be written in the syntax of the lambda calculus. But, interestingly for us, it is not concerned about how he computer does it; rather it just has some simple rules about what a computer can do. It is, if you like, a very simple declarative programming language.


The lambda calculus gets its name from its use of the Greek letter lambda - $\lambda$ to represent a function that takes a single argument.

After the $\lambda$ comes the name that that single argument is bound to - say $x$.

And after that we write a $.$ to say that we're inside the 'body' of the function.

The $x$ is a bound variable - it stands for some value that the function can be applied to.

And to apply a value to a function, you call it by putting them next to each other (maybe with some brackets to make it clearer what's the value and what's the body).

That's it. That's everything in the lambda calculus - it's a syntax for writing about functions of one argument.

So where in JavaScript we have:

x => x + 1

and in Scheme we have

(lambda (x) (+ x 1))

in the lambda calculus syntax we have:

$$ \lambda x.x + 1 $$

Only one argument?

So you might see some limitations here.Only one argument, you may say, what if I need another one? Happily we can just return another function to bind a new argument. Hooray - everything is curryed.

So where in JavaScript:

x => y => x + y

and in Scheme:

(lambda (x) (lambda (y) (+ x y)))

so in the lambda calculus we have:

$$ \lambda x.\lambda y.x + y $$

Although usually1 we'd just write:

$$ \lambda xy.x + y $$

But we would of course remember that, if the function had only one argument applied to it, it would return a function that expected the next argument.

$\alpha$-conversion, $\beta$-reduction

These terms do absolutely nothing to dispell the feeling that the lambda calculus is a bit elitist. Look, even more Greek letters - it must be complicated and clever because just writing about it requires me to know how to say $\alpha$!

Really though, these are just big words for 'substitution' and 'application', the basics of which you probably picked up in high school algebra.

'α-conversion' (alpha-conversion) just means that we can change the name of a bound variable in a Lambda expression. So if we've got:

$$ \lambda xy.x + y $$

We can just change all the $x$s to $a$s

$$ \lambda ay.a + y $$

And the expression hasn't changed its meaning one iota.2

'β-reduction' (beta-reduction) is a little more complicated - what it means is that, when a value is applied to a function, we can substitute all the variables that name that argument with the value the function is applied to. For instance, in JavaScript:

(x => y => x + y)(5)

under β-reduction becomes

y => 5 + y

We unwrap the outer function and replace occurances of its variable with the supplied value. In lambda land:

$$ (\lambda xy. x + y)\ 5 $$


$$ \lambda y. 5 + y $$

(I threw some parentheses around that other Lambda expression to make it clear that the $5$ was getting applied to the whole function and to separate it from the body $x + y$ - there's no hard and fast rules as far as that goes).

Next up - numbers made of functions. Wait, what?

  1. To save on the world's dwindling supply of $\lambda$s 

  2. Greek alphabet pun. BOOM!