Chasing Pythons Recursion Limit

I recently saw this post on Facebook, annotated with “Unless you use Python”:

The meme that started this all

Credit Computer Science Memes for Travelling Salesman Teens

This led me to want to contradict the statement, although probably not recommended. So, lets consider the following python program:

import sys

def recurse(n):
    recurse(n + 1)

if __name__ == '__main__': recurse(1)

It is a simply recursive program which simply prints out the value of n. If you run it you will find that it will raise a RecursionError at some point, for me 997 was the last value printed. Now it is important to understand why this happens. Under the hood, the Python interpreter enforces a recursion depth that is set sanely so you don’t cause the underlying C implementation to produce a stack overflow.

But sticking with my aim of disproving the original Facebook post, I set out to get around this limitation. What I came up with is this:

import sys

def recurse(n):
    sys.setrecursionlimit(sys.getrecursionlimit() + 1)
    if n == 2000:
    recurse(n + 1)

if __name__ == '__main__': recurse(1)

Sure enough, running this increments the recursion depth naively making sure we never hit the limit. If we remove the if-statement we will achieve our goal of seemingly-infinite recursion. However, it’s got a slight problem, if we do remove the safety of the if-statement and run the code, we will get a segmentation fault. For me, this occured at n = 36142 and looked like this:

[1]    7655 segmentation fault  python3

Now 36132 seems to be pretty close to 2^15, perhaps there is some reason behind this? I attempted to look at the Python interpreter source code but to no avail, if anyone has an answer stemming from this I would very much appreciate you contacting me and explaining it. As for my own analysis to why this is the number we land at, I present the following.

First we need to change the code so it doesn’t segfault any more. To do this, we limit the size of n to 36141. By profiling our code using python3 -m cProfile we get the following output:

         144527 function calls (108397 primitive calls) in 0.410 seconds

   Ordered by: standard name

   ncalls  tottime  percall  cumtime  percall filename:lineno(function)
        1    0.000    0.000    0.410    0.410<module>)
  36131/1    0.094    0.000    0.410    0.410
        1    0.000    0.000    0.410    0.410 {built-in method builtins.exec}
    36131    0.294    0.000    0.294    0.000 {built-in method builtins.print}
    36131    0.009    0.000    0.009    0.000 {built-in method sys.getrecursionlimit}
    36131    0.013    0.000    0.013    0.000 {built-in method sys.setrecursionlimit}
        1    0.000    0.000    0.000    0.000 {method 'disable' of '_lsprof.Profiler' objects}

Looking at the output we see that there are 144527 function calls, 36131 of them being calls to our recurse function, 36131 calls for each of the print, sys.getrecursionlimit and sys.setrecursionlimit functions. Now calling sys.getsizeof(recurse) lets us know that our recurse function takes up 136 bytes. Similarly, we find that print, sys.getrecursionlimit and sys.setrecursionlimit are all 72 bytes in size. This means that we are using at least ((36131 * 136) + (36131 * 72 * 3)) / 1024 / 1024 ~= 12mb during execution. Perhaps this means the limit of the Python call stack is somewhere around this number.

Final Thoughts

Upon exploring Stack Overflow (No pun intended) and various other sites, I have not been able to find specific reason why I can not increase the recursion limit, and the stack size, to accomodate the needs of infinite recursion.

Final ideas on achieving this would include having to make actual code changes to the Python interpreter and/or predicting the number of calls you will make within the recursive function so you may grow the stack accordingly. For example, recurse made 4 function calls in total and hence I imagined I could increase the recursion depth by 4 each time (this did not work surprisingly, leaving me with the same magic number, 36131, and a segfault.

Conclusively, I suspect it is not possible to have infinite recursion in Python either because our call stack will grow too fast or we simply allocate too much memory.

Written on August 29, 2017