# Recursion

August 05, 2019

## In order to understand recursion you must first understand recursion

When I asked someone to explain it to me the above title was repeated back to me with a snicker and not much else. Honestly I thought the person was being a real smart ass and it wasn’t at all helpful at the time. So what is a recursive function? Simply put, a recursive function is any function that calls itself and is described in terms of itself. So with this incomplete definition we could do the following.

function dontRunMe() {console.log("To infinity and beyond!!")dontRunMe()}/*To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!To infinity and beyond!!RangeError: Maximum call stack size exceededat process.get [as domain] (domain.js:43:16)at new TickObject (internal/process/next_tick.js:238:29)at process.nextTick (internal/process/next_tick.js:267:17)at onwrite (_stream_writable.js:452:15)at WriteStream.Socket._writeGeneric (net.js:777:5)at WriteStream.Socket._write (net.js:787:8)at doWrite (_stream_writable.js:396:12)at writeOrBuffer (_stream_writable.js:382:5)at WriteStream.Writable.write (_stream_writable.js:290:11)at WriteStream.Socket.write (net.js:711:40)>*/

In theory a recursive function like this with no base case will run forever. Given that a computers memory space is finite, we end up blowing the stack. Knowing how the execution stack works is essential to understanding recursion. Wait!? What is a base case and an execution stack?

Glad you asked! A base case is some kind of condition that when met breaks the cycle of adding to the execution stack. Without the base case we will always blow the stack as demonstrated above. The execution stack is a data structure that is FIFO. First in first out. When a function is executed the function is pushed to the top of the stack. When the base case is reached each call of the function is popped off the stack starting with the last called function context. This function context contains details about the execution of a function - like control flow & variables.

let’s take what we know so far and make a tickingBomb function for fun.

function tickingBomb(num) {if (num == 0) {return} else {console.log(num)setTimeout(() => {return tickingBomb(num - 1)}, 1000)}}tickingBomb(10)/*10987654321Boom!*/

When any recursive function is first called it runs through each recursive call adding to the stack as it goes. When it reaches the base case it then unfolds returning the base case return value first then it calculates each function call after that with the returned values of each previous function call. I like to think of it as walking up the stairs and then back down the stairs to get the calculated results.

Lets get into another example to get a better understanding

// this function sums whatever number you give it with each number below it decremented by onefunction sumRecursive(n) {if (n == 1) {return 0} else {return n + sumRecursive(n - 1)}}sumRecursive(4) // 4 + 3 + 2 + 1

This isn’t actual code. I’m trying to make what is happening behind the scenes visual for better
understanding. I’m replacing the parameters with the value it will have at each function call.
The `(4)`

value in parantheses are the values that are in context for that execution stack.
The `<----`

arrow indicates the return value being returned from previous execution stack.

recurse until we hit the base casestack # 1function sumRecursive(4) {if (4 == 1) {return 1;} else {return (4) + sumRecursive(4 - 1);}}stack # 2function sumRecursive(3) {if (3 == 1) {return 1;} else {return (3) + sumRecursive(3 - 1);}}stack # 3function sumRecursive(2) {if (2 == 1) {return 1;} else {return (2) + sumRecursive(2 - 1);}}stack # 4function sumRecursive(1) {if (1 == 1) {return (1);} else {// never reached. we hit base case}}now the javascript engine pops off the stack and calculatesthe resultsreturn 1//stack # 4function sumRecursive(1) {if (2 == 1) {return 1;} else {// never reached}}pop() stack # 4// stack # 3function sumRecursive(2) {if (2 == 1) {return 1;} else {return 2 + (1) <--- sumRecursive(2 - 1);}}pop() stack # 3//stack # 2function sumRecursive(3) {if (2 == 1) {return 1;} else {return 3 + (3) <--- sumRecursive(3 - 1);}}pop() stack # 2//stack # 1function sumRecursive(4) {if (2 == 1) {return 1;} else {return 4 + (6) <--- sumRecursive(4 - 1);}}pop stack # 1

I hope these simple examples of recursion helped you grasp what is going on. One thing you can do is open a debugger, set a break point and watch what happens to the execution stack as it recurses. My old wordpress blog post has a bit about how to use the chrome debugger for better understanding algorithms.