Mathematically, numbers may be arranged into a tower of subtypes in which each level is a subset of the level above it:
number complex real rational integer
For example, 3 is an integer. Therefore 3 is also a rational,
a real, and a complex. The same is true of the Scheme numbers
that model 3. For Scheme numbers, these types are defined by the
There is no simple relationship between a number’s type and its representation inside a computer. Although most implementations of Scheme will offer at least two different representations of 3, these different representations denote the same integer.
Scheme’s numerical operations treat numbers as abstract data, as independent of their representation as possible. Although an implementation of Scheme may use fixnum, flonum, and perhaps other representations for numbers, this should not be apparent to a casual programmer writing simple programs.
It is necessary, however, to distinguish between numbers that are represented exactly and those that may not be. For example, indexes into data structures must be known exactly, as must some polynomial coefficients in a symbolic algebra system. On the other hand, the results of measurements are inherently inexact, and irrational numbers may be approximated by rational and therefore inexact approximations. In order to catch uses of inexact numbers where exact numbers are required, Scheme explicitly distinguishes exact from inexact numbers. This distinction is orthogonal to the dimension of type.