The Case of the Disappearing Bits

[number line with location markers]
Every green line in this image stands for a value exactly representable in a floating point value of finite size. As you see, it’s a white area out there [source]

While I was preparing the publication of Coryn Bailer-Jones’ distance estimations based on Gaia eDR3 (to be released about tomorrow), Coryn noticed I was swallowing digits from his numbers. My usual reaction of “aw, these are meaningless anyway because your errors are at least an order of magnitude higher” didn’t work this time, because Gaia is such an incredible machine that some of the values really have six significant decimal digits. For an astronomical distance! If I had a time machine, I’d go back to F.W. Bessel right away to make him pale in envy.

I’m storing these distances as PostgreSQL REALs, so these six digits are perilously close the seven decimal digits that the 23 bits of mantissa of single precision IEEE 754 floats are usually translated to. Suddenly, being cavalier with the last few bits of the mantissa isn’t just a venial sin. It will lose science.

So, I went hunting for the bits, going from parsing (in this case C’s sscanf) through my serialisation into Postgres binary copy material (DaCHS operators: this is using a booster) to pulling the material out of the database again. And there I hit it: the bits disappeared between copying them in and retrieving them from the database.

Wow. Turns out: It’s a feature. And one I should have been aware of in that Postgres’ docs have a prominent warning box where it explains its floating point types: Without setting extra-float-digits it will cut off bits. And it’s done this ever since the dawn of DaCHS (in postgres terms, version 8.2 or so).

Sure enough (edited for brevity):

gavo=$ select r_med_geo from gedr3dist.main 
gavo-$ where source_id=563018673253120;
    1430.9

gavo=$ set extra_float_digits=3;
gavo=$ select r_med_geo from gedr3dist.main 
gavo-$ where source_id=563018673253120;
 1430.90332

Starting with its database schema 26 (which is the second part of the output of dachs --version), DaCHS will configure its database roles always have extra_float_digits 3; operators beware: this may break your regression tests after the next upgrade.

If you want to configure your non-DaCHS role, too, all it takes is

  alter role (you) set extra_float_digits=3,

You could also make the entire database or even the entire cluster behave like that; but then losing these bits isn’t always a bad idea: It really makes the floats prettier while most of the time not losing significant data. It’s just when you want to preserve the floats as you get them – and with science data, that’s mostly a good idea – that we just can’t really afford that prettyness.

Update (2021-04-22): It turns out that this was already wrong (for some meaning of wrong) when I wrote this. Since PostgreSQL 12, Postgres uses shortest-precise by default (and whenever extra_float_digits is positive). The official documentation has a nice summary of the problem and the way post-12 postgres addresses it. So: expect your float-literal-comparing regression tests to break after the upgrade to bullseye.