This is the fifth post in an open-ended series on proving the correctness of TLA specifications using Isabelle/HOL:

Floyd’s loop-finding algorithm

This post is about Floyd’s tortoise-and-hare algorithm for detecting a loop in a linked list using constant space. The basic idea is you have two pointers (called tortoise and hare) and you walk them along the list with the hare going two steps for every one step of the tortoise. If the hare finds the end of the list then you know there’s no loop, and if the hare meets up with the tortoise again then you know there is a loop.

I came across this example in Hillel Wayne’s list of TLA+ examples which linked to a post by Lorin Hochstein in which the TLA+ toolbox was used to show this algorithm’s partial correctness: it never gives the wrong answer, although it may never give any answer at all, which is a safety property. I thought it’d be a nice exercise to strengthen this to a total correctness argument by showing that the algorithm does eventually terminate, i.e. a liveness property, using Isabelle/HOL.

This post is a tour of TortoiseHare.thy in my TLA examples Github repository.

Preliminaries on linked lists

We fix a linked list up-front as follows:

locale LinkedList =
  fixes headCell :: 'Cell
  fixes nextCell :: "'Cell ⇒ 'Cell option"
  assumes finiteNext: "finite { c. nextCell c ≠ None }"

headCell is the start of the list, and the nextCell function either has nextCell c = Some c' if c' follows c in the list, or else nextCell c = None if c has no successor. We need to make some kind of assumption that rules out infinite lists, and I elected to assume that only finitely many nextCells have been assigned. It’d also be fine to make the stronger assumption that there are only finitely many cells, and the weaker assumption that there are only finitely many cells reachable from headCell, but I liked this one the best.

In order to state the algorithm it’s useful to have a helper function for moving the hare two steps forward, called nextNextCell:

definition nextNextCell :: "'Cell ⇒ 'Cell option"
  where "nextNextCell c ≡ case nextCell c of None ⇒ None | Some c' ⇒ nextCell c'"


The specification extends the LinkedList locale:

locale TortoiseHare = LinkedList
  where headCell = headCell
  for headCell :: 'Cell

There are three variables. We already met tortoise and hare which point to cells, and hasLoop is a bool option that indicates whether the algorithm is still running (hasLoop = None) or if it has detected a loop (hasLoop = Some True) or found that there is no loop (hasLoop = Some False):

  fixes tortoise :: "'Cell stfun"
  fixes hare     :: "'Cell stfun"
  fixes hasLoop  :: "bool option stfun"
  assumes bv: "basevars (tortoise, hare, hasLoop)"

Initially the tortoise and the hare are at the start of the list and the algorithm has not terminated:

  fixes Initial :: stpred
  defines "Initial ≡ PRED
    tortoise = #headCell ∧ hare = #headCell ∧ hasLoop = #None"

A step of the algorithm involves moving tortoise to its nextCell and hare to its nextNextCell, and then checking if the hare has met the tortoise again or not:

  fixes Step :: action
  defines "Step ≡ ACT $hasLoop = #None
                        ∧ Some<hare$>     = nextNextCell<$hare>
                        ∧ Some<tortoise$> = nextCell<$tortoise>
                        ∧ hasLoop$ = (if hare$ = tortoise$ then #(Some True)
                                                           else #None)"

It’s only possible to take this step if the hare has a nextNextCell - if not then it has found the end of the loop and the algorithm terminates with hasLoop = Some False.

  fixes Finish :: action
  defines "Finish ≡ ACT $hasLoop = #None
                            ∧ nextNextCell<$hare> = #None
                            ∧ hasLoop$ = #(Some False)"

Notice that in this case we do not need to define the values for tortoise$ and hare$: the algorithm has terminated so it does not matter what values they hold. The Step and Finish actions are the only possible:

  fixes Next :: action
  defines "Next ≡ ACT (Step ∨ Finish)"

The full spec combines the definitions above with fairness conditions that indicate that the algorithm always eventually takes a step or else terminates:

  fixes Spec :: temporal
  defines "Spec ≡ TEMP (Init Initial ∧ □[Next]_(tortoise, hare, hasLoop)
      ∧ WF(Step)_(tortoise, hare, hasLoop)
      ∧ WF(Finish)_(tortoise, hare, hasLoop))"

Linked lists and transitive closures

Isabelle has some useful machinery for working with transitive closures, which are important here, so here are some definitions that help to bridge the gap from the presentation of a linked list above.

definition r :: "('Cell × 'Cell) set"
  where "r ≡ {(c1, c2). nextCell c1 = Some c2}"

The relation r is the successor relation: the set of pairs of adjacent cells.

definition loopExists :: bool
  where "loopExists ≡ ∃ c. (headCell, c) ∈ rtrancl r ∧ (c, c) ∈ trancl r"

The functions trancl and rtrancl return the transitive closure and the reflexive-transitive closure of their input. Isabelle likes to write these as superscript + and * respectively but they’re too hard to type and the difference is too subtle for me at the font size I prefer, so I like to spell the names in full. In more detail, trancl r is all pairs of cells that are reachable in one or more steps, and rtrancl r is all pairs reachable in zero or more steps. The + and * notation is known as the Kleene plus and Kleene star. This means that loopExists records the existence of a loop that is reachable from headCell.

It is clear that each cell has at most one successor:

lemma unique_successor: "(c, c1) ∈ r ⟹ (c, c2) ∈ r ⟹ c1 = c2" by (auto simp add: r_def)

It is also important that the set of reachable cells from anywhere is finite, which follows from assumption finiteNext above:

lemma finiteList: "finite {c'. (c, c') ∈ rtrancl r}"

In the case where c2 directly follows c1 and c3 transitively follows c1, c3 must be reachable from c2:

lemma next_step:
  assumes c12: "(c1, c2) ∈ r" and c13: "(c1, c3) ∈ trancl r"
  shows "(c2, c3) ∈ rtrancl r"

It seems that the case where the loop is “tight”, i.e. comprises one cell, is a bit of a special case, and the following lemma is useful for handling this. It says the (obvious) fact that the only cell that is reacahable from a tight loop is the cell in the loop.

lemma tight_loop_eq:
  assumes cc': "(c, c') ∈ rtrancl r" and loop: "(c, c) ∈ r"
  shows "c' = c"

It’s useful to have a slightly stronger property when a loop exists: it means that there is a cell which is ahead of all cells in the list:

lemma loopExists_always_ahead:
  assumes "loopExists"
  shows "∃ c.  (headCell, c)  ∈ rtrancl r 
      ∧ (∀ c'. (headCell, c') ∈ rtrancl r ⟶ (c', c) ∈ trancl r)"

This allows us to show that loopExists is equivalent to knowing that every cell that is reachable from headCell has a successor:

lemma loopExists_no_end:
  "loopExists = (∀ c. (headCell, c) ∈ rtrancl r ⟶ nextCell c ≠ None)"
proof (cases loopExists)


The basic safety property is

⊢ Spec ⟶ □(hasLoop ≠ #(Some (¬ loopExists)))

In more detail, recall that hasLoop = Some b when the algorithm has terminated, where the boolean b indicates whether a loop was found or not. This safety property says that hasLoop can never be Some (¬ loopExists) - it is always either None (if the algorithm has not terminated) or else Some loopExists if it correctly determined the existence of a loop, which is the partial correctness property we wanted.

In fact we show a slightly stronger property:

definition Invariant :: stpred where "Invariant ≡ PRED
  hasLoop = #None ⟶ ((#headCell, tortoise) ∈ #(rtrancl r)
                      ∧ (tortoise, hare) ∈ #(rtrancl r))"

definition Safety :: stpred where
  "Safety ≡ PRED Invariant ∧ hasLoop ≠ #(Some (¬ loopExists))"

The extra invariant says that (while the algorithm hasn’t terminated) the tortoise is always reachable from headCell and the hare is always reachable from the tortoise.

It turns out that many of the proofs that follow break down into four cases:

  • a step is taken as normal (and no loop is found)
  • a step is taken as normal and the hare catches the tortoise, so a loop is found
  • the hare is at a cell with no successor, so no loop is possible, or
  • the hare is at a cell with a successor but this cell has no successor, so again no loop is possible.

It’s useful to capture this observation in a cases lemma (as was done last time). The statement of this lemma here is ludicrously long, mainly because there are so many cells involved in the “step” cases:

  • the headCell
  • the tortoise (old and new positions)
  • the hare (old and new positions, and the intervening cell)

There’s quite a big set of reachability relationships between these cells, most of which are important at some point in one of the proofs, so the cases lemma states and proves them all at once to avoid duplication later. Here goes…

lemma square_Next_cases [consumes 2, case_names unchanged Step FoundLoop LastHare PenultimateHare]:
  assumes s_Safety: "s ⊨ Safety" and sq_Next: "(s,t) ⊨ [Next]_(tortoise, hare, hasLoop)"
  assumes unchanged: "
      ⟦ tortoise t = tortoise s
      ; hare t = hare s
      ; hasLoop t = hasLoop s
      ; (s,t) ⊨ ¬Step
      ; (s,t) ⊨ ¬Finish
      ⟧ ⟹ P"
  assumes Step: "⋀h'.
      ⟦ hare t ≠ tortoise t
      ; hasLoop s = None
      ; hasLoop t = None
      ; (headCell, tortoise s) ∈ rtrancl r
      ; (headCell, hare s) ∈ rtrancl r
      ; (headCell, tortoise t) ∈ trancl r
      ; (headCell, h') ∈ trancl r
      ; (headCell, hare t) ∈ trancl r
      ; (tortoise s, hare s) ∈ rtrancl r
      ; (tortoise s, tortoise t) ∈ r
      ; (tortoise s, h') ∈ trancl r
      ; (tortoise s, hare t) ∈ trancl r
      ; (hare s, h') ∈ r
      ; (hare s, hare t) ∈ trancl r
      ; (tortoise t, h') ∈ rtrancl r
      ; (tortoise t, hare t) ∈ trancl r
      ; (h', hare t) ∈ r
      ; (s,t) ⊨ Step
      ; (s,t) ⊨ ¬Finish
      ; (s,t) ⊨ ¬unchanged(tortoise, hare, hasLoop)
      ⟧ ⟹ P"
  assumes FoundLoop: "⋀h'.
      ⟦ hare t = tortoise t
      ; hasLoop s = None
      ; hasLoop t = Some True
      ; loopExists
      ; (headCell, tortoise s) ∈ rtrancl r
      ; (headCell, hare s) ∈ rtrancl r
      ; (headCell, tortoise t) ∈ trancl r
      ; (headCell, h') ∈ trancl r
      ; (headCell, hare t) ∈ trancl r
      ; (tortoise s, hare s) ∈ rtrancl r
      ; (tortoise s, tortoise t) ∈ r
      ; (tortoise s, h') ∈ trancl r
      ; (tortoise s, hare t) ∈ trancl r
      ; (hare s, h') ∈ r
      ; (hare s, hare t) ∈ trancl r
      ; (tortoise t, h') ∈ rtrancl r
      ; (tortoise t, hare t) ∈ trancl r
      ; (h', hare t) ∈ r
      ; (s,t) ⊨ Step
      ; (s,t) ⊨ ¬Finish
      ; (s,t) ⊨ ¬unchanged(tortoise, hare, hasLoop)
      ⟧ ⟹ P"
  assumes LastHare: "
      ⟦ hasLoop s = None
      ; hasLoop t = Some False
      ; ¬ loopExists
      ; nextCell (hare s) = None
      ; (headCell, tortoise s) ∈ rtrancl r
      ; (headCell, hare s) ∈ rtrancl r
      ; (tortoise s, hare s) ∈ rtrancl r
      ; (s,t) ⊨ ¬Step
      ; (s,t) ⊨ Finish
      ; (s,t) ⊨ ¬unchanged(tortoise, hare, hasLoop)
      ⟧ ⟹ P"
  assumes PenultimateHare: "⋀h'.
      ⟦ hasLoop s = None
      ; hasLoop t = Some False
      ; ¬ loopExists
      ; (hare s, h') ∈ r
      ; nextCell h' = None
      ; (headCell, tortoise s) ∈ rtrancl r
      ; (headCell, hare s) ∈ rtrancl r
      ; (headCell, h') ∈ trancl r
      ; (tortoise s, hare s) ∈ rtrancl r
      ; (tortoise s, h') ∈ trancl r
      ; (hare s, h') ∈ r
      ; (s,t) ⊨ ¬Step
      ; (s,t) ⊨ Finish
      ; (s,t) ⊨ ¬unchanged(tortoise, hare, hasLoop)
      ⟧ ⟹ P"
  shows P

The proof of this is a little laborious, but it pays off: the safety lemma follows almost automatically. Here is the proof in full:

lemma safety: "⊢ Spec ⟶ □Safety"
proof invariant
  fix sigma
  assume sigma: "sigma ⊨ Spec"
  thus "sigma ⊨ Init Safety"
    unfolding Invariant_def Safety_def Spec_def Initial_def r_def
    by (auto simp add: Init_def)

  show "sigma ⊨ stable Safety"
  proof (intro Stable)
    from sigma show "sigma ⊨ □[Next]_(tortoise, hare, hasLoop)"
      by (auto simp add: Spec_def)

    show "⊢ $Safety ∧ [Next]_(tortoise, hare, hasLoop) ⟶ Safety$"
    proof (intro actionI temp_impI, elim temp_conjE, unfold unl_before)
      fix s t
      assume "s ⊨ Safety" "(s,t) ⊨ [Next]_(tortoise, hare, hasLoop)"
      thus "(s,t) ⊨ Safety$"
        by (cases rule: square_Next_cases, auto simp add: Safety_def Invariant_def loopExists_no_end)

Liveness & termination

The liveness proof for the case where there is a loop is really quite different from the case where there isn’t. If there isn’t a loop then the argument is roughly that there is a cell with no successor (by lemma loopExists_no_end above) and each transition takes the hare one step closer to finding it. If there is a loop then there are two phases: firstly, each transition takes the tortoise closer to being in the loop, and once the tortoise is in the loop then each transition takes the hare one step closer to catching up with the tortoise.

It is useful to formalise this idea of “closer” as follows:

fun iterateNextCell :: "nat ⇒ 'Cell ⇒ 'Cell option"
  where "iterateNextCell 0       c = Some c"
  |     "iterateNextCell (Suc n) c
                  = (case iterateNextCell n c of None ⇒ None
                                               | Some c' ⇒ nextCell c')"

The function iterateNextCell n returns the nth successor of its input, satisfying properties like this:

lemma iterateNextCell_sum: "iterateNextCell (a + b) c
  = (case iterateNextCell a c of None ⇒ None | Some c' ⇒ iterateNextCell b c')"

This allows us to define a function which measures the distance between two cells:

definition distanceBetween :: "'Cell ⇒ 'Cell ⇒ nat"
  where "distanceBetween c1 c2 ≡ LEAST n. iterateNextCell n c1 = Some c2"

An interesting feature of Isabelle is that functions do not need to be well-defined on all their inputs: distanceBetween c1 c2 only makes sense when c2 is reachable from c1, but there is no mention of this condition in its definition. If given bad input, distanceBetween doesn’t throw an exception or fail to terminate or anything like that, it simply returns an arbitrary result. This works because if we know nothing about distanceBetween c1 c2 when c2 is unreachable from c1 then we cannot use its value in any meaningful way, which means that any statements about it will have to have ensure that the right precondition holds. It might seem more obvious to put in a guard condition as follows:

definition distanceBetweenOrZero :: "'Cell ⇒ 'Cell ⇒ nat"
  where "distanceBetweenOrZero c1 c2
          ≡ if (c1, c2) ∈ rtrancl r
            then (LEAST n. iterateNextCell n c1 = Some c2)
            else 0"

This function is actually harder to use because it clearly defines its value for all arguments, and yet its value is meaningless for unreachable inputs (and would remain meaningless if 0 were replaced by any other number) so the reachability precondition will still be necessary when using it. Moreover there is a risk that we actually use its value on unreachable inputs, which can be avoided if the return value is arbitrary. We can avoid that risk using an option type to model the partiality of the function with something like this:

definition maybeDistanceBetween :: "'Cell ⇒ 'Cell ⇒ nat option"
  where "maybeDistanceBetween c1 c2
          ≡ if (c1, c2) ∈ rtrancl r
            then Some (LEAST n. iterateNextCell n c1 = Some c2)
            else None"

Again, this is harder to use, and is no safer than the unguarded definition.

The preferred distanceBetween function satisfies all sorts of useful properties, all of which have preconditions that guarantee reachability of its arguments in one way or another:

lemma iterateNextCell_distanceBetween:
  assumes "(c1, c2) ∈ rtrancl r"
  shows "iterateNextCell (distanceBetween c1 c2) c1 = Some c2"

lemma distanceBetween_atMost:
  assumes "iterateNextCell n c1 = Some c2" shows "distanceBetween c1 c2 ≤ n"

lemma distanceBetween_0 [simp]: "distanceBetween c c = 0"

lemma distanceBetween_0_eq:
  assumes "(c1, c2) ∈ rtrancl r"
  shows "(distanceBetween c1 c2 = 0) = (c1 = c2)"

lemma distanceBetween_le_1:
  assumes "(c1, c2) ∈ r" shows "distanceBetween c1 c2 ≤ 1"

lemma distanceBetween_triangle:
  assumes c12: "(c1, c2) ∈ rtrancl r" and c23: "(c2, c3) ∈ rtrancl r"
  shows "distanceBetween c1 c3 ≤ distanceBetween c1 c2 + distanceBetween c2 c3"

lemma distanceBetween_eq_Suc:
  assumes c13: "(c1, c3) ∈ rtrancl r" and c13_ne: "c1 ≠ c3"
      and c12: "(c1, c2) ∈ r"
  shows "distanceBetween c1 c3 = Suc (distanceBetween c2 c3)"

There is one other property that turns out to be useful: any cell has at most one predecessor in a loop:

lemma loop_unique_previous:
  assumes c1c: "(c1, c) ∈ r" and c1_loop: "(c1, c1) ∈ trancl r"
  assumes c2c: "(c2, c) ∈ r" and c2_loop: "(c2, c2) ∈ trancl r"
  shows "c1 = c2"

The proof of this works by computing the length of the loop that c1 is in, i.e. 1 + distanceBetween c c1, and then showing that this is the same as the length of the loop that c2 is in.

It’s also useful to specialise rule WF1 for this specification, to cut out some duplication:

lemma WF1_Spec:
  fixes A :: action
  fixes P Q :: stpred
  assumes 0: "⊢ Spec ⟶ WF(A)_(tortoise, hare, hasLoop)"
  assumes 1: "⋀s t.
    ⟦ s ⊨ P; s ⊨ Safety; (s,t) ⊨ [Next]_(tortoise, hare, hasLoop) ⟧
      ⟹ t ⊨ P ∨ Q"
  assumes 2: "⋀s t.
    ⟦ s ⊨ P; s ⊨ Safety; (s,t) ⊨ [Next]_(tortoise, hare, hasLoop) ⟧
      ⟹ s ⊨ Enabled(<A>_(tortoise, hare, hasLoop))"
  assumes 3: "⋀s t.
    ⟦ s ⊨ P; s ⊨ Safety; (s,t) ⊨ [Next]_(tortoise, hare, hasLoop);
        (s,t) ⊨ A; (s,t) ⊨ ¬unchanged (tortoise, hare, hasLoop) ⟧
      ⟹ t ⊨ Q"
  shows "⊢ Spec ⟶ (P ↝ Q)"

The final “utility” lemma is to characterise the conditions under which the Step action is enabled, which is when the hare has a second successor (and the algorithm has not already terminated):

  assumes s_Safety: "s ⊨ Safety"
  assumes nextNext: "nextNextCell (hare s) ≠ None"
  assumes notFinished: "hasLoop s = None"
  shows Enabled_StepI: "s ⊨ Enabled (<Step>_(tortoise, hare, hasLoop))"

Now the liveness proof can properly begin. The first step is to capture the last transition in the no-loop case:

lemma hare_endgame: "⊢ Spec ⟶ (nextNextCell<hare> = #None ↝ hasLoop ≠ #None)"

This follows from the fairness of the Finish action by a relatively straightforward application of the WF1_Spec rule above. One minor wrinkle is that nextNextCell<hare> = #None might be true after the algorithm has already terminated, in which case the Finish action is not enabled, so we need to use the diamond rule to consider the two cases hasLoop = #None and hasLoop ≠ #None separately.

The next step is to show that if the algorithm does not terminate then the tortoise visits every reachable cell:

lemma tortoise_visits_everywhere:
  assumes hd_c: "(headCell, c) ∈ rtrancl r"
  shows "⊢ Spec ⟶ ◇(hasLoop ≠ #None ∨ tortoise = #c)"

The key to proving this is to introduce a variable n, that tracks the distance between the tortoise and the target cell, c, and then to observe that n always decreases (or the algorithm terminates), so that eventually the tortoise visits the target cell:

⊢ Spec
  ⟶ ((∃n. (tortoise, #c) ∈ #(rtrancl r)
           ∧ hasLoop = #None ∧ tortoise ≠ #c
           ∧ distanceBetween<tortoise, #c> = #n)
      ↝ hasLoop ≠ #None ∨ tortoise = #c)

Since here the structure that underpins the induction does not change, it’s possible that this could have been done with an external induction, but I elected to use the internal wellfounded induction rule instead. It’s a bit of a pain to have to account for all of the things that might happen in a step: the full statement about a single Step transition is as follows:

⊢ Spec
    ⟶ ((tortoise, #c) ∈ #(rtrancl r)
                ∧ hasLoop = #None
                ∧ tortoise ≠ #c
                ∧ distanceBetween<tortoise, #c> = #n
                ∧ nextNextCell<hare> ≠ #None
          ↝   hasLoop ≠ #None
            ∨ tortoise = #c
            ∨ (∃n'. #((n', n) ∈ {(n, n'). n < n'})
                ∧ (tortoise, #c) ∈ #(rtrancl r)
                ∧ hasLoop = #None
                ∧ tortoise ≠ #c
                ∧ distanceBetween<tortoise, #c> = #n'))"

The preconditions are necessary:

  • (tortoise, #c) ∈ #(rtrancl r) means we haven’t overshot and passed the target cell already.
  • hasLoop = #None means the algorithm hasn’t already terminated.
  • tortoise ≠ #c means we haven’t found the target cell yet, or else n would be 0 and wouldn’t be able to decrease, and
  • nextNextCell<hare> ≠ #None means that the Step transition is actually enabled.

The diamond rule is used repeatedly to introduce these preconditions, by handling the cases where they aren’t true separately.

Onto the main theorem:

theorem liveness: "⊢ Spec ⟶ ◇(hasLoop ≠ #None)"
proof (cases loopExists)

The two cases (loopExists vs ¬ loopExists) are very different. The latter is much simpler: using loopExists_no_end yields a reachable cell cLast with no successor, and then tortoise_visits_everywhere shows that either the algorithm terminates or else the tortoise visits cLast. This is enough: the hare is always reachable from the tortoise because of the safety invariant, and at cLast the tortoise has no successor so the hare must also have no successor, so hare_endgame applies and the algorithm terminates.

The case where loopExists is true is a little trickier. The first step is to note that, because there is a loop, there is a reachable cell cLoop in the loop, which the tortoise eventually reaches. Since the hare is always reachable from the tortoise, this means the hare is also in the loop, which means that the tortoise is now reachable from the hare.

From here we want to be able to say that every step now decrements distanceBetween<tortoise,hare> so that eventually they meet and the algorithm terminates, but it is sadly not quite so simple, because there is one corner case in which this is not true: if cLoop = headCell then the tortoise is in the loop at the system’s initial state, but in the initial state distanceBetween<tortoise,hare> = 0 and yet the algorithm hasn’t terminated: the hare must go 1½ times around the loop until it meets the tortoise again, and the first step therefore increases distanceBetween<tortoise,hare>.

To get around this case, rather than doing induction on distanceBetween<tortoise,hare> directly we can introduce an inductor, a tuple of values, ordered lexicographically, which does decrease on each step. Here the inductor is a pair:

#inductor = (tortoise = hare, distanceBetween<hare, tortoise>)

The first component decreases from True to False in the corner case mentioned above, and in all other cases the first component remains False and the second component decreases. Using this inductor leaves us with the following statement to prove:

⊢ Spec ⟶
  (hasLoop = #None
    ∧ (#cLoop, tortoise) ∈ #(trancl r)
    ∧ #inductor = (tortoise = hare, distanceBetween<hare, tortoise>)

    ↝ hasLoop ≠ #None
      ∨ (∃inductor'. #((inductor', inductor)
                          ∈ {(False, True)} <*lex*> {(i, j). i < j})
            ∧ hasLoop = #None
            ∧ (#cLoop, tortoise) ∈ #(trancl r)
            ∧ #inductor' = (tortoise = hare, distanceBetween<hare, tortoise>)))

This is not so complicated:

  • hasLoop = #None means the algorithm hasn’t already terminated.
  • (#cLoop, tortoise) ∈ #(trancl r) is a useful invariant that indicates that the tortoise is still in the loop.
  • #inductor = (tortoise = hare, distanceBetween<hare, tortoise>) defines the inductor.

It’s also true for a single step, so rule WF1_Spec applies. There are two cases to show, depending on whether tortoise = hare or not. If tortoise = hare then after one step either tortoise ≠ hare or else the algorithm has terminated, so this is simple. If tortoise ≠ hare then either the algorithm terminates or else distanceBetween<hare, tortoise> decreases. This last part follows from these three statements:

  • distanceBetween (hare s) (tortoise s) = Suc (distanceBetween h' (tortoise s))
  • distanceBetween h' (tortoise t) ≤ Suc (distanceBetween h' (tortoise s))
  • distanceBetween h' (tortoise t) = Suc (distanceBetween (hare t) (tortoise t))

For context, the states s and t are the states before and after the transition, and h' is the cell in between hare s and hare t. The first and third statements say that moving the hare one cell forwards reduces the distance to the tortoise by 1, which requres that the hare does not overtake the tortoise in either of these steps, but fortunately we’ve already accounted for this. The third statement says that moving the tortoise one step forward does not increase the distance from the hare by more than one, so that overall the distance does decrease. The sequence of operations is important here:

  1. Move the hare one step forward, decreasing the distance by 1.

  2. Move the tortoise one step forward, increasing the distance by at most 1.

  3. Move the hare one step forward, decreasing the distance by 1.

Any other sequence does not behave so nicely. For example, if the tortoise moves forwards first then it may meet the hare, reducing the distance to 0, and then moving the hare forward increases the distance again by some arbitrary amount that turns out to be equal to the previous decrease, but it’s a bit of a pain to show this.

From here, the proof goes through without any further difficulty.


It was hopefully interesting to see how it works to model the partial function distanceBetween as a total function which returns an arbitrary value when its arguments are not reachable, rather than using a specific value or explicit partiality via the option type.

I was a little surprised by how branchy this proof was. I thought it was going to be quite straightforward, but it needed slightly special handling for the cases where the loop was tight (i.e. nextCell cLoop = Some cLoop) and for when the loop included the head of the list. These do seem to be special cases that aren’t quite covered by the informal proof I was following, and although they’re not hard to cover I find it satisfying when Isabelle finds these kinds of corner cases that informal proofs skip.

As always, I tried a number of approaches before settling on the final one discussed here. In retrospect, because I was expecting a less branchy proof I was mostly trying to find a way to avoid the branches I kept encountering, which needed to deal with the cases where the tortoise and hare were at the same cell without the algorithm having terminated (e.g. at the start, or if the tortoise moved “first” in each transition). Once I’d realised that these case splits really were unavoidable then the proof went through and it didn’t take much tidying up to get to where it is here.

This was a nice exercise, and I’d like to thank Hillel and Lorin for giving me the idea.