Using Python with VisAD

November, 2001
Updated: December, 2002

Table of Contents

Quick Reference List of API functions

HTML-formatted documentation for and


The VisAD Library is a powerful and comprehensive software development package for working with scientific data. While substantial applications can be built by professional software developers, scientists and others may find it easier to write VisAD applications in Python. The Jython (Java-based implementation of Python) interface to VisAD is being developed to provide this friendly environment.

This tutorial will continue to grow and expand as we add more Jython functions to provide interfaces for users. Check back often...

What is Jython?

(taken from the Jython project homepage at )
Jython is an implementation of the high-level, dynamic, object-oriented language Python seamlessly integrated with the Java platform. The predecessor to Jython, JPython, is certified as 100% Pure Java. Jython is freely available for both commercial and non-commercial use and is distributed with source code. Jython is complementary to Java and is especially suited for the following tasks: There are numerous alternative languages implemented for the Java VM. The following features help to separate Jython from the rest:

How do I get started?

The first time you run the script to start the interpreter, you'll get some messages about analyzing the jar files that are in the CLASSPATH. This will include the visad.jar if you are running VisAD from the jar file. If all goes well, you should get the customary Jython prompt:
If you're new to Jython (Python), you might want to review the Python tutorial and other parts of the documentation that are available on-line. For now, if you simply type a numeric expression and press Enter, Jython will display the answer:
>>>2 + 3

In many of the examples in this tutorial, you'll see references to two scripts ( and that I am putting a collection of utilities related to VisAD. Although these are part of the normal installation, they also change periodically, and you can always download the latest copies of these, but by clicking on these links:

The Jython Development Environment

Once you install Jython, you will find a file in its home directory named registry -- this is where Jython keeps its environment information. (Note: this is not the "Windows Registry".) The file is editable and contains numerous examples and tips (imbedded as comments). Details can be found here.

Why am I telling you this? Well, if you are going to create your own Python scripts and library routines, or you want to use the ones that come with VisAD without having to always run from the directory containing them, you will find it much more convenient to set the python.path value to include your directories.

You may also set up an environment variable that points to their location. For example:

export PYTHONPATH=./:/usr/local/jython/Lib:/home/me/src/visad/python/
(or the equivalent in Windows).

The visad.python.JPythonEditor

Curtis Rueden has put together an excellent programming editor that you can use to help simplify your script building and experimenting. To run the editor, use the following command:
java -cp visad.jar visad.python.JPythonFrame
This editor uses more-or-less standard hotkeys and other GUI-ized editing functions, like the arrow keys for navigation. It also imports some things for you every time you start it. With the editor, you can bring in an existing script (or start a new one), modify it, and run it. If you want to make iterative changes, this is a very convenient environment. (Tip: if your scripts are going to use up lots of memory, you might want to add a -mx128m option on the command line -- or whatever maximum memory heap size you'd like.)

Here's a screen-shot of the JPythonEditor in action:

If you don't use the editor (see the next section), you'll likely have to include this line in every module you write:

from visad.python.JPythonMethods import *
Believe me, this is an easy one to mis-type! What does this do? It causes Jython to look at the JPythonMethods class file and import all the static methods defined there-in. We have put many VisAD short-cuts there, and are continuing to define higher-level methods to provide for often used combinations of VisAD methods. Fortunately, the JPythonEditor automatically supplies the from visad.python.JPythonMethods import * for you!

And if you use VisAD classes and methods directly, you'll have to include an import of the class(es) or the entire package:

from visad import Real, FlatField, etc.
from visad import *

From the command line

Jython comes with an interactive, command-line interpreter. Keep in mind that, unlike the JPythonEditor, it does not allow you to build a script; rather, it allows you to enter Jython commands that are executed immediately.

Here are two tips if this is going to be your primary way of using Jython:

  1. At present in Jython, there is no "initialization" script available that is automatically started. You can emulate this, however, by doing this: For example: Put these two lines in a file named
    from visad.python.JPythonMethods import *
    from visad import *
    Then make a shell script (batch file) that looks like:
    @echo off
    java -mx256m "-Dpython.home=d:\java\jython" -cp "d:\java\jython\jython.jar;%CLASSPATH%" org.python.util.jython -i
  2. If you are at the >>> prompt and want to run a script from a .py file you've created, use the Jython execfile() command:

Your first display

Once you've gotten this far, and imported all the methods from JPythonMethods, then you're ready for your first "ahhhhhhhhh". We tried to keep this's just a "one-liner":
plot( field ( [0, 7, 10, 7, 0, -7, -10, -7, 0] ) )
(all the extra spaces are optional - but note the "nesting" of parens around the list, so that Jython will make a single list and pass that to the field() function)

After a few seconds, a window will pop up with a curve that looks like a poorly-sampled sine wave:

(If you're doing this from the command line interpreter, be sure you first did:
from visad.python.JPythonMethods import *)

Now, what's happening? First off, the "from visad.python.JPythonMethods..." line causes the Jython interpreter to look at the class file "visad.python.JPythonMethods.class" and gather a list of all the method names contained therein. You may then pick a method from this list by simply using its name. plot() and field() are both methods (functions) in this file.

Second, we form a Jython list with the notation:

 [ 0, 7, 10, 7, 0, -7, -10, -7, 0 ]
which will be treated just like an array of numbers. We pass this list to the field() function (in JPythonMethods) which creates a VisAD Data object as a simple 1-D sampling. (Note: in Jython, the notation [...] denotes a "list" which is a mutable sequence; the notation (...) denotes a "tuple" which is an immutable sequence.)

Then the plot() method does all the VisAD stuff needed to create the plot from this. You'll notice below the image window, there are a few buttons:

Lots of times, though, you have data in a file that you want to display. In the following section, check out the page on reading data from a file, and you'll see an example just about as easy...that looks something like this:
a = load("example1.txt")

Making Quick Graphs of your data

When you have simple data structures, and just want to make a quick plot/graph, we have provided the script which contains several methods for quickly producing common graphs, like a bar-style histogram:

To use these quick graphs, you must first import graph in your Jython script.

This section gives you the details.

Connecting to VisAD

You note from the trivial example in the last section that there are no explicit references in the code to anything that tells you that VisAD is underneath. It's all there, of course, but in this simple case, it is quite hidden away. The trick is in defining the right kind of methods to consolidate VisAD functions that are often used. You certainly can go "under the hood" if you want. For example, the variable "a" in the above example is really a VisAD "FlatField" object. You can use any FlatField method you want.

Ugo Taddei has created an excellend tutorial on VisAD programming, which you can view at this link. Also, Frank Gibbons has translated Ugo's examples into Jython, which you can find here.

In this section, we'll talk about the model of data that VisAD uses, and then introduce the built-in functions that operate on these data. Each sub-section will contain the details and examples, so just follow the links. 

How VisAD models data

Objects in Jython may very easily be used to represent VisAD Data objects, and VisAD Data objects can literally represent any numerical data. This allows for some very convenient notations to be used. For example, if you have two image files and want to show their difference, the following Jython code does the trick:
image1 = load("AREA0001")
image2 = load("AREA0002")
imagediff = image2 - image1
Since the meaning of image2 - image1 is to "subtract one object from another", we treat this as meaning subtract the data values of one object from the other. The beauty of this is that the notation is simple; furthermore, as you'll learn, if these image files also have navigation information, any re-sampling that must be done in order to perform the subtraction will take place automatically.

This section gives an overview of the VisAD Data Model as it relates to Jython scripting. A more thorough treatment is provided at at this link

Handling missing data values

VisAD represents missing data by the Java/IEEE value NaN (Not a Number). To test for this value in Jython, you need to do something like:
    if Double(x).isNan():
where 'x' is the value you are testing, and you have previously done an import java.lang.Double.


Earlier, I mentioned this Java class file, JPythonMethods. It is a helper class that contains many static methods that can be used by Jython to work with VisAD data. Here is a summary of the methods therein, with links to pages explaining and giving examples for many of them:

Several small examples

In this section, we present a collection of examples that illustrate ways to use Jython and VisAD together. The beginning of the section has an index, and we plan to add to this... 

An example built in stages

Here the development of an application that presents two panels to the user - one has an image with a movable horizontal line; the other shows the the brightness values at points along that line. This example will be developed in stages, to give the opportunity to discuss trade-offs and ideas. 

Making VisAD Collaborations

In this section, we make some small modifications to the example from the previous section to illustrate how to make your application collaborative. Just click here to see how easy it is...and to see what is perhaps the smallest, useful VisAD application ever written!!

Making and sharing your own neat stuff

We'll put your contributions in this section. To encourage you to share your .py scripts with others, I've put a seedling here. This script is actually just a set of helper methods that are used by the example in the previous section. Not sure what I want here, except it would be nice to have a two-way street for folks to share their stuff. Maybe a new visad-jython email list or something.