Python is a general purpose, interpreted, extensible, object-oriented scripting language that was chosen for VisIt’s scripting language due to its ease of use and flexibility. VisIt’s Python interface was implemented as Python module and it allows you to enhance your Python scripts with coding to control VisIt. This chapter explains some of Python’s syntax so it will be more familiar when you examine the examples found in this document. For more information on programming in Python, there are a number of good references, including on the Internet at


One of the most obvious features of Python is its use of indentation for new scopes. You must take special care to indent all program logic consistently or else the Python interpreter may halt with an error, or worse, not do what you intended. You must increase indentation levels when you define a function, use an if/elif/else statement, or use any loop construct.

Note the different levels of indentation:

def example_function(n):
  v = 0
  if n > 2:
    print "n greater than 2."
    v = n * n
  return v


Like all good programming languages, Python supports the addition of comments in the code. Comments begin with a pound character (#) and continue to the end of the line.

# This is a comment
a = 5 * 5


The Python interpreter accepts any identifier that contains letters ’A’-’Z’, ’a’-’z’ and numbers ’0’-’9’ as long as the identifier does not begin with a number. The Python interpreter is case-sensitive so the identifier “case” would not be the same identifier as “CASE”. Be sure to case consistently throughout your Python code since the Python interpreter will instantiate any identifier that it has not seen before and mixing case would cause the interpreter to use multiple identifiers and cause problems that you might not expect. Identifiers can be used to refer to any type of object since Python is flexible in its treatment of types.

Data types

Python supports a wide variety of data types and allows you to define your own data types readily. Most types are created from a handful of building-block types such as integers, floats, strings, tuples, lists, and dictionaries.


Python has built-in support for strings and you can create them using single quotes or double quotes. You can even use both types of quotes so you can create strings that include quotes in case quotes are desired in the output. Strings are sequence objects and support operations that can break them down into characters.

s = 'using single quotes'
s2 = "using double quotes"
s3 = 'nesting the "spiffy" double quotes'


Python supports tuples, which can be thought of as a read-only set of objects. The members of a tuple can be of different types. Tuples are commonly used to group multiple related items into a single object that can be passed around more easily. Tuples support a number of operations. You can subscript a tuple like an array to access its individual members. You can easily determine whether an object is a member of a tuple. You can iterate over a tuple. There are many more uses for tuples. You can create tuples by enclosing a comma-separated list of objects in parenthesis.

# Create a tuple
a = (1,2,3,4,5)
print "The first value in a is:", a[0]
# See if 3 is in a using the "in" operator.
print "3 is in a:", 3 in a
# Create another tuple and add it to the first one to create c.
b = (6,7,8,9)
c = a + b
# Iterate over the items in the tuple
for value in c:
  print "value is: ", value


Lists are just like tuples except they are not read-only and they use square brackets [] to enclose the items in the list instead of using parenthesis.

# Start with an empty list.
L = []
for i in range(10):
  # Add i to the list L
  L = L + [i]
print L
# Assign a value into element 6
L[5] = 1000
print L


Dictionaries are Python containers that allow you to store a value that is associated with a key. Dictionaries are convenient for mapping 1 set to another set since they allow you to perform easy lookups of values. Dictionaries are declared using curly braces and each item in the dictionary consists of a key: value pair with the key and values being separated by a colon. To perform a lookup using a dictionary, provide the key whose value you want to look up to the subscript [] operator.

colors = {"red" : "rouge", "orange" : "orange", \
"yellow" : "jaune", "green" : "vert", "blue" : "bleu"}
# Perform lookups using the keys.
for c in colors.keys():
   print "%s in French is: %s" % (c, colors[c])

Control flow

Python, like other general-purpose programming languages provides keywords that implement control flow. Control flow is an important feature to have in a programming language because it allows complex behavior to be created using a minimum amount of scripting.


Python provides if/elif/else for conditional branching. The if statement takes any expression that evaluates to an integer and it takes the if branch if the integer value is 1 other wise it takes the else branch if it is present.

# Example 1
if condition:

# Example 2
if condition:

# Example 3
if condition:
elif conditionn:

For loop

Python provides a for loop that allows you to iterate over all items stored in a sequence object (tuples, lists, strings). The body of the for loop executes once for each item in the sequence object and allows you to specify the name of an identifier to use in order to reference the current item.

# Iterating through the characters of a string
for c in "characters":
   print c

# Iterating through a tuple
for value in ("VisIt", "is", "coolness", "times", 100):
   print value

# Iterating through a list
for value in ["VisIt", "is", "coolness", "times", 100]:
   print value

# Iterating through a range of numbers [0,N) created with range(N).
N = 100
for i in range(N):
   print i, i*i

While loop

Python provides a while loop that allows you to execute a loop body indefinitely based on some condition. The while loop can be used for iteration but can also be used to execute more complex types of loops.

token = get_next_token()
while token != "":
  token = get_next_token()


Python comes with many built-in functions and modules that implement additional functions. Functions can be used to execute bodies of code that are meant to be re-used. Functions can optionally take arguments and can optionally return values. Python provides the def keyword, which allows you to define a function. The def keyword is followed by the name of the function and its arguments, which should appear as a tuple next to the name of the function.

# Define a function with no arguments and no return value.
def my_function():
    print "my function prints this..."

# Define a function with arguments and a return value.
def n_to_the_d_power(n, d):
    value = 1
    if d > 0:
        for i in range(d):
            value = value * n
    elif d < 0:
        value = 1. / float(n_to_the_d_power(n, -d))

return value

Finding Stuff from Python Prompt

Most Python functions and objects in VisIt have _doc_ strings specified. This means, you can use help(thing), where thing is not a string but an actual object or function, to get useful information about them. If you are having trouble finding the right functions or objects, you can use apropos(regex), where regex is a regular expression string, and you will get back a list of all objects and functions whose names, doc strings or stringified instances (for objects only) match the regular expression. For example,

>>> apropos("icosahedron")
['SubsetAttributes', 'ScatterAttributes', 'PseudocolorAttributes', 'FilledBoundaryAttributes', 'MeshAttributes']
>>> apropos(".*mir.*")
['SetDefaultMaterialAttributes', 'MaterialAttributes', 'GetMaterialAttributes', 'SetMaterialAttributes']
>>> apropos(".*reconstruct.*")
['GetMeshManagementAttributes', 'SetDefaultMeshManagementAttributes', 'SetMeshManagementAttributes', 'SetDefaultMaterialAttributes', 'GetMaterialAttributes', 'SetMaterialAttributes']

One drawback with using Python’s help(thing) facility is that it requires prior knowledge of the name(s) (including correct capitalization) of the things you want to use. Consequently, VisIt’s Python environment adjusts the default behavior of help(thing) slightly to first present Python’s normal help but then to also follow that up with the output of apropos(thing). For example,

>>> help("copy")

Help on module copy:

    copy - Generic (shallow and deep) copying operations.


    The following documentation is automatically generated from the Python
    source files.  It may be incomplete, incorrect or include features that
    are considered implementation detail and may vary between Python
    implementations.  When in doubt, consult the module reference at the
    location listed above.

    Interface summary:

            import copy

            x = copy.copy(y)        # make a shallow copy of y
            x = copy.deepcopy(y)    # make a deep copy of y

    For module specific errors, copy.Error is raised.
NOTE: The following VisIt functions and objects also mention 'copy'...
['CopyAnnotationsToWindow', 'CopyLightingToWindow', 'CopyPlotsToWindow', 'CopyViewToWindow', 'GetPlotList', 'InitializeNamedSelectionVariables']

In Python Regular Expressions the .* is needed for an arbitrary number of unspecified characters. See this HOWTO for more information about Python Regular Expressions. The function name apropos was inspired by a function of similar name and purpose in the Unix operating system.