Catalan Numbers

Catalan numbers form a sequence of natural numbers that have found immense application in various areas of mathematics, particularly in combinatorics. To understand Catalan numbers, it's important to start from the very foundation and build up the concept in a step-by-step manner.


The nth Catalan number can be defined in several equivalent ways. One of the most common definitions is:

Cn=1n+1(2nn)C_n = \frac{1}{n+1} \binom{2n}{n}

where (2nn)\binom{2n}{n} is a binomial coefficient.

Understanding the Formula

  1. Binomial Coefficient: The term (2nn)\binom{2n}{n} is a binomial coefficient, which counts the number of ways to choose n items from 2n items, regardless of the order. Mathematically, it's defined as (2n)!n!n!\frac{(2n)!}{n!n!}.

  2. Division by n+1n+1: This division adjusts the count to account for specific structures or sequences we're counting in combinatorial problems. Without this adjustment, the count would be too high for the scenarios Catalan numbers are used to model.

Examples of Catalan Numbers

The first few Catalan numbers are:

  • C0=1C_0 = 1
  • C1=1C_1 = 1
  • C2=2C_2 = 2
  • C3=5C_3 = 5
  • C4=14C_4 = 14
  • and so on.


Catalan numbers appear in various combinatorial problems, such as:

  1. Counting Parentheses: The number of correctly matched sequences of parentheses.
  2. Binary Tree Structures: The number of distinct binary trees with a certain number of nodes.
  3. Polygon Triangulation: The number of ways to divide a polygon into triangles by non-crossing diagonals.

Calculating Catalan Numbers

Catalan numbers can be calculated using the formula given, or through recursive relations. A simple recursive approach can be inefficient for large n due to repeated calculations. Dynamic programming or direct calculation using the formula is more efficient.

Let's write a Python function to calculate the nth Catalan number using the direct formula:

import math

def catalan_number(n):
    Calculate the nth Catalan number using the direct formula.
    n (int): The index of the Catalan number to calculate.
    int: The nth Catalan number.
    # Using the binomial coefficient formula: C(2n, n)
    binomial_coeff = math.comb(2*n, n)
    # Catalan number formula: C_n = 1/(n+1) * C(2n, n)
    catalan_num = binomial_coeff // (n + 1)
    return catalan_num

# Example: Calculate the first 5 Catalan numbers
for i in range(5):
    print(f"C_{i} = {catalan_number(i)}")

In this code:

  • math.comb(2*n, n) calculates the binomial coefficient (2nn)\binom{2n}{n}.
  • catalan_num = binomial_coeff // (n + 1) applies the Catalan number formula.
  • Finally, the function returns the calculated Catalan number.

The loop at the end prints the first five Catalan numbers as an example.