Chapter 11 Using Python

You can put Python code in R Markdown documents:

print("Hello R")
Hello R

but how can those chunks interact with your R and vice versa? The answer is a package called reticulate that provides two-way communication between Python and R.

11.1 Learning Objectives

  • Use reticulate to share data between R and Python.
  • Use reticulate to call Python functions from R code and vice versa.
  • Run Python scripts directly from R programs.

11.2 How do I set up reticulate?

To use it, run install.packages("reticulate"). By default, it uses the system-default Python:


but you can configure it to use different versions, or to use virtualenv or a Conda environment—see the document for details.

If you want to run the Pythonic bits of code we present as well as the R, run install.packages("reticulate") and then set the RETICULATE_PYTHON environment variable to point at the version of Python you want to use before you launch RStudio. This is necessary because you may have a system-installed version somewhere like /usr/bin/python and a conda-managed version in ~/anaconda3/bin/python.

XKCD on Python Environments (from

Figure 11.1: XKCD on Python Environments (from

11.3 How can I access data across languages?

The most common way to use reticulate is to do some calculations in Python and then use the results in R or vice versa. To show how this works, let’s read our infant HIV data into a Pandas data frame:

import pandas
data = pandas.read_csv('results/infant_hiv.csv')
  country  year  estimate  hi  lo
0     AFG  2009       NaN NaN NaN
1     AFG  2010       NaN NaN NaN
2     AFG  2011       NaN NaN NaN
3     AFG  2012       NaN NaN NaN
4     AFG  2013       NaN NaN NaN

All of our Python variables are available in our R session as part of the py object, so py$data is our data frame inside a chunk of R code:

  country year estimate  hi  lo
1     AFG 2009      NaN NaN NaN
2     AFG 2010      NaN NaN NaN
3     AFG 2011      NaN NaN NaN
4     AFG 2012      NaN NaN NaN
5     AFG 2013      NaN NaN NaN
6     AFG 2014      NaN NaN NaN

reticulate handles type conversions automatically, though there are a few tricky cases: for example, the number 9 is a float in R, so if you want an integer in Python, you have to add the trailing L (for “long”) and write it 9L.

On the other hand, reticulate translates between 0-based and 1-based indexing. Suppose we create a character vector in R:

elements = c('hydrogen', 'helium', 'lithium', 'beryllium')

Hydrogen is in position 1 in R:

[1] "hydrogen"

but position 0 in Python:


Note our use of the object r in our Python code: just py$whatever gives us access to Python objects in R, r.whatever gives us access to R objects in Python.

11.4 How can I call functions across languages?

We don’t have to run Python code, store values in a variable, and then access that variable from R: we can call the Python directly (or vice versa). For example, we can use Python’s random number generator in R as follows:

pyrand <- import("random")
pyrand$gauss(0, 1)
[1] -0.3561333

(There’s no reason to do this—R’s random number generator is just as strong—but it illustrates the point.)

We can also source Python scripts. For example, suppose that contains this function:

#!/usr/bin/env python

import pandas as pd

def get_countries(filename):
    data = pd.read_csv(filename)

We can run that script using source_python:


There is no output because all the script did was define a function. By default, that function and all other top-level variables defined in the script are now available in R:

  [1] "AFG" "AGO" "AIA" "ALB" "ARE" "ARG" "ARM" "ATG" "AUS" "AUT" "AZE"
 [12] "BDI" "BEL" "BEN" "BFA" "BGD" "BGR" "BHR" "BHS" "BIH" "BLR" "BLZ"
 [23] "BOL" "BRA" "BRB" "BRN" "BTN" "BWA" "CAF" "CAN" "CHE" "CHL" "CHN"
 [34] "CIV" "CMR" "COD" "COG" "COK" "COL" "COM" "CPV" "CRI" "CUB" "CYP"
 [45] "CZE" "DEU" "DJI" "DMA" "DNK" "DOM" "DZA" "ECU" "EGY" "ERI" "ESP"
 [56] "EST" "ETH" "FIN" "FJI" "FRA" "FSM" "GAB" "GBR" "GEO" "GHA" "GIN"
 [67] "GMB" "GNB" "GNQ" "GRC" "GRD" "GTM" "GUY" "HND" "HRV" "HTI" "HUN"
 [78] "IDN" "IND" "IRL" "IRN" "IRQ" "ISL" "ISR" "ITA" "JAM" "JOR" "JPN"
 [89] "KAZ" "KEN" "KGZ" "KHM" "KIR" "KNA" "KOR" "LAO" "LBN" "LBR" "LBY"
[100] "LCA" "LKA" "LSO" "LTU" "LUX" "LVA" "MAR" "MDA" "MDG" "MDV" "MEX"
[111] "MHL" "MKD" "MLI" "MLT" "MMR" "MNE" "MNG" "MOZ" "MRT" "MUS" "MWI"
[122] "MYS" "NAM" "NER" "NGA" "NIC" "NIU" "NLD" "NOR" "NPL" "NRU" "NZL"
[133] "OMN" "PAK" "PAN" "PER" "PHL" "PLW" "PNG" "POL" "PRK" "PRT" "PRY"
[144] "PSE" "ROU" "RUS" "RWA" "SAU" "SDN" "SEN" "SGP" "SLB" "SLE" "SLV"
[155] "SOM" "SRB" "SSD" "STP" "SUR" "SVK" "SVN" "SWE" "SWZ" "SYC" "SYR"
[166] "TCD" "TGO" "THA" "TJK" "TKM" "TLS" "TON" "TTO" "TUN" "TUR" "TUV"
[177] "TZA" "UGA" "UKR" "UNK" "URY" "USA" "UZB" "VCT" "VEN" "VNM" "VUT"
[188] "WSM" "YEM" "ZAF" "ZMB" "ZWE"

There is one small pothole in this. When the script is run, the special Python variable __name__ is set to '__main__'"', i.e., the script thinks it is being called from the command line. If it includes a conditional block to handle command-line arguments like this:

if __name__ == '__main__':
    input_file, output_files = sys.argv[1], sys.argv[2:]
    main(input_file, output_files)

then that block will be executed, but will fail because sys.argv won’t include anything.

11.5 Key Points

  • The reticulate library allows R programs to access data in Python programs and vice versa.
  • Use py.whatever to access a top-level Python variable from R.
  • Use r.whatever to access a top-level R definition from Python.
  • R is always indexed from 1 (even in Python) and Python is always indexed from 0 (even in R).
  • Numbers in R are floating point by default, so use a trailing ‘L’ to force a value to be an integer.
  • A Python script run from an R session believes it is the main script, i.e., __name__ is '__main__' inside the Python script.