Working With Variables
Last updated on 2023-04-26 | Edit this page
Estimated time 65 minutes
- How can I store values and do simple calculations with them?
- Navigate among important sections of the MATLAB environment.
- Assign values to variables.
- Identify what type of data is stored in MATLAB arrays.
- Read tabular data from a file into a program.
Before we can start programming, we need to know a little about the MATLAB interface. Using the default setup, the MATLAB desktop contains several important sections:
- In the Command Window we can execute commands.
Commands are typed after the prompt
>>and are executed immediately after pressing Enter.
- Alternatively, we can open the Editor, write our code and run it all at once. The advantage of this is that we can save our code and run it again in the same way at a later stage.
- The Workspace contains all the variables which we have loaded into memory.
- The Current Folder window shows files in the current directory, and we can change the current folder using this window.
Search Documentation on the top right of your
screen lets you search for functions. Suggestions for functions that
would do what you want to do will pop up. Clicking on them will open the
documentation. Another way to access the documentation is via the
helpcommand — we will return to this later.
In this lesson we will learn how to manipulate the inflammation dataset with MATLAB. But before we discuss how to deal with many data points, we will show how to store a single value on the computer.
We can create a new variable by
assigning a value to it using
>> weight_kg = 55;
At first glance nothing appears to have happened! We don’t get any output in the command window because we put a semi-colon after the variable assignment: this suppresses output, which is generally a good thing because it makes code run more quickly. Let’s run the command again without the semi-colon, and this time we have some output in the command window:
>> weight_kg = 55
weight_kg = 55
A variable is just a name for a piece of data or value.
Variable names must begin with a letter, and are case sensitive. They
can contain also numbers or underscores. Examples of valid variable
Once a variable has a value, we can print it using the
or simply typing its name, followed by Enter
weight_kg = 55
Storing single values is fine, but how can we store multiple values in the same variable? We can create an array using square brackets, separating each value with a comma:
>> a = [1, 2, 3]
a = 1 2 3
In a similar way, we can create matrices using semi-colons to separate rows:
>> b = [a; 4, 5, 6]
b = 1 2 3 4 5 6
Something to bear in mind about arrays and matrices is that all
values in an array must be of the same type e.g. all numbers or all
strings. It is however possible to convert between data types
num2str which converts numbers to a string
>> num2str(a) ans = '1 2 3'
So once we have a numeric value stored in a variable, we can do arithmetic with it:
>> weight_lb = 2.2 * weight_kg; >> disp(['Weight in pounds: ', num2str(weight_lb)])
Weight in pounds: 121
That last command combines several new concepts, so let’s break it down:
disp function takes a single argument — the value to
print. So if we want to print more than one value on a single line, we
can print an array of values (i.e. one argument), which we
create using square brackets, and recall that an array must contain
values all of the same type. In this case we convert the number to a
string so that we can print an array of characters.
We can change the value of a variable by assigning it a new one:
>> weight_kg = 57.5
weight_kg = 57.5
Assigning a value to one variable does not change the values of other variables.
For example, we just changed the value of
55 to 57.5, but
weight_lb hasn’t changed:
weight_lb = 121
weight_lb doesn’t “remember” where its value came
from, it isn’t automatically updated when
changes. This is important to remember, and different from the way
Now that we know how to assign values to variables, let’s view a list of all the variables in our workspace:
Your variables are: a b weight_kg weight_lb
To remove a variable from MATLAB, use the
>> clear weight_lb >> who
Your variables are: a b weight_kg
Alternatively, we can look at the Workspace. The
workspace contains all variable names and assigned values that we
currently work with. As long as they pop up in the workspace, they are
universally available. It’s generally a good idea to keep the workspace
as clean as possible. To remove all variables from the workspace,
execute the command
clear on its own.
The first two lines assign the initial values to the variables, so
mass = 47.5 and age = 122. The next line evaluates
mass * 2.0 i.e.
47.5 * 2.0 = 95, then
assigns the result to the variable
mass. The last line
age - 20 i.e.
122 - 20,
then assigns the result to the variable
the final values are mass = 95, and age = 102.
The key point to understand here is that the expression to the right
= sign is evaluated first, and the result is then
assigned to the variable specified to the left of the
Before we get started, let’s create some directories to help organise this project.
Good Enough Practices for Scientific Computing is a paper written by researchers involved with the Carpentries, which covers basic workflow skills for research computing. It recommends the following for project organization:
- Put each project in its own directory, which is named after the project.
- Put text documents associated with the project in the
- Put raw data and metadata in the
datadirectory, and files generated during clean-up and analysis in a
- Put source code for the project in the
srcdirectory, and programs brought in from elsewhere or compiled locally in the
- Name all files to reflect their content or function.
We already have a
data directory in our
matlab-novice-inflammation project directory, so we only
need to create a
results directory for this project. You
can use your computer’s file browser to create this directory. We’ll
save all our scripts and function files in the main project
A final step is to set the current folder in MATLAB to our
project folder. Use the Current Folder window in the
MATLAB GUI to browse to your project folder
In order to check the current directory, we can run
(print working directory). A second check we can do is to run the
ls (list) command in the Command Window to list the
contents of the working directory — we should get the following
Reading data from files and writing data to them are essential tasks in scientific computing, and admittedly, something that we’d rather not spend a lot of time thinking about. Fortunately, MATLAB comes with a number of high-level tools to do these things efficiently, sparing us the grisly detail.
If we know what our data looks like (in this case, we have a matrix
stored as comma-separated values) and we’re unsure about what command we
want to use, we can search the documentation. Type
read matrix into the documentation toolbar. MATLAB suggests
readmatrix. If we have a closer look at the
documentation, MATLAB also tells us, which in- and output arguments this
To load the data from our CSV file into MATLAB, type the following command into the MATLAB command window, and press Enter:
>> patient_data = readmatrix('data/inflammation-01.csv');
This loads the data and assigns it to a variable, patient_data. This is a good example of when to use a semi-colon to suppress output — try re-running the command without the semi-colon to find out why. You should see a wall of numbers printed, which is the data from the file.
>> patient_data = readmatrix('data/inflammation-01.csv')
readmatrix(...) is a function call. Functions
generally need arguments to run.
In the case of the
readmatrix function, we need to provide
a single argument: the name of the file we want to read data from. This
argument needs to be a character string or string, so we put it in quotes.
Now that our data is in memory, we can start doing things with it. First, let’s find out its size:
ans = 60 40
The output tells us that the variable
refers to a table of values that has 60 rows and 40 columns.
MATLAB stores all data in the form of multi-dimensional arrays. For example:
- Numbers, or scalars are represented as two dimensional arrays with only one row and one column, as are single characters.
- Lists of numbers, or vectors are two dimensional as well, but the value of one of the dimensions equals one. By default vectors are row vectors, meaning they have one row and as many columns as there are elements in the vector.
- Tables of numbers, or matrices are arrays with more than one column and more than one row.
- Even character strings, like sentences, are stored as an “array of characters”.
Normally, MATLAB arrays can’t store elements of different data types.
For instance, a MATLAB array can’t store both a
float and a
char. To do that, you have to use a Cell
We can use the
class function to find out what type of
data lives inside an array:
ans = 'double'
This output tells us that
patient_data contains double
precision floating-point numbers. This is the default numeric data type
in MATLAB. If you want to store other numeric data types, you need to
tell MATLAB explicitly. For example, the command,
>> x = int16(325);
assigns the value
325 to the name
storing it as a 16-bit signed integer.