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I'm facing a practical problem where I've calculated a formula that, with the help of some programming, can bring me to my final answer. However, the numbers involved are so big that it takes ages to compute, and I think it might not be necessary. I have the following formula,

$\sum\limits^{k}_{i=m}(N-i)^{k-i}(\frac{1}{N})^k\frac{k!}{(k-i)!i!} \leq a$

from which I need to calculate N. The rest of the values are constants, but in the range of the 100,000s. The factorial there is giving me a headache, since the values involved are too large; what simplifications could I make that will loosen the bounds slightly and thereby simplify the calculation? Are there any standard tricks? Or perhaps a way to calculate this in matlab / octave?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

You need Stirling's approximation. It is very accurate for large factorials.

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You don't need to compute the individual factorials in order to compute $k!/(k-i)!i!$, since that's the binomial coefficient $\binom{k}{i}$. A simple algorithm for computing binomial coefficients can be found on Wikipedia. A more sophisticated algorithm is due to Goetgheluck (JSTOR); implementations can be found here and here.

Of course, with numbers of the size that you have, this might still not be feasible, and in this case I also recommend Stirling's formula.

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Here is a good writeup about implementing Stirling's approximation, along with a reference implementation:

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 import java.util.HashMap;

 * Convenience methods for deterministic combinations.
 * Usage:
 * <pre> 
 * Factorial f = new Factorial();
 * long ten_over_two = f.over(10,2);     //takes a while, because no cache yet
 * System.out.println( f.factorial( 8)); //instantaneous
 * </pre>
 * Notes:
 * <li>instantiate and use, it will reuse its own cache, so after a while it is supposed to run in O(1).
 *     Code is super fast (0.0ms)
 * <li>For very big numbers, use Stirling's approximation, @see
 * <li>Overflow is a big problem. 
 *     the max value is 9223372036854775807 < 21!, 
 *     1.7976931348623157E308 <171!
 *     Either it is super fast or it breaks, the combinations grow too fast, and for 2k~n it is biggest; 
 *     it cannot even handle (29 14) but for k/n small it can function barely.
public class Factorial {

    static private HashMap<Integer, Double> cache = new HashMap<Integer, Double> (); 

    public Double factorial(int n)
    Integer N = Integer.valueOf( n );
    if(cache.containsKey( N) ) return cache.get( N );

    if(n<1) {
        cache.put( N, 0D );
        return 0D;
    if(n==1) {
        cache.put( N, 1D );
        return 1D;

    Double temp = 1D;
    for (int i = 1; i < n; i++) {
        cache.put( i, temp );

    Double prev = factorial(n-1);
    if(prev>Double.MAX_VALUE/n) throw new IllegalArgumentException("factorial("+n+") overflow");

    return n*prev;

    // 52!/47! = 52*51*50*49*48 so extra(52,47) = 52*(51,47) ... and (47,47)=1
    private Double extra(int n, int minus)
        if(n<=minus) return 1D;
        Double result = extra(n-1,minus);
        if(result>Double.MAX_VALUE/n) throw new IllegalArgumentException(  "overflow");
        return n* result;

     * This method computes (n k) = n!/(k! * (n-k)!) 
     * <p/>
     * Example usage:
     * <li>over(52,2) = 2598960
     * <li>over(5,2) = 10
     * <li>over(2,2) = 1 //ignoring swaps
     * @param n the big set
     * @param k how much to draw out of n
     * @return all combinations of drawing k out of n, ignoring swaps. Simply double the amount for regarding swaps.
    public Double over(int n, int k){
        if(k==n) return 1D;
        if(k>n) return 0D;
        if(k<=0) return 0D;
        //k>=1 and n>k
        if(k<n-k) return over(n,n-k); 
        Double over = extra(n,k);
        Double divisor = factorial(k);      
        return over/divisor;            

     * basic test and usage
    public static void main(String[] args) 
        Double fuc= new Factorial().factorial( 170);     //takes a while, because no cache yet

            int n = 100;
            int k = 50;
            double start = System.currentTimeMillis(); 
            //Factorial f = new Factorial();
            Double ten_over_two = new Factorial().over(n,k);     //takes a while, because no cache yet
            double delta = System.currentTimeMillis()-start;
            System.out.println( "ten_over_two=" +ten_over_two + ": in " + delta + "ms");

            int n = 8;
            double start = System.currentTimeMillis(); 
        Factorial f = new Factorial();
        System.out.println( f.factorial( n)); //instantaneous
            double delta = System.currentTimeMillis()-start;

            System.out.println( "factorial("+n+") in " + delta + "ms");


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Why would that be faster ? –  Hippalectryon Oct 9 '14 at 13:40
because it reuses already computed factors. –  user182100 Oct 9 '14 at 13:52

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