file: idl-simple-manual.txt = introduction to IDL basics
last: Oct 25 2017  Rob Rutten  Deil


                     Robert J. Rutten

               Lingezicht Astrophysics Deil
          Institutt for Teoretisk Astrofysikk Oslo 
This compact IDL tutorial is a beginner's introduction to IDL, showing
how to do simple calculations, make plots, write IDL programs.  

It consists of a didactic sequence of IDL commands that you should try
out on the IDL command line.  It starts after an extensive
introduction with general information and weblinks.

There are parallel txt, pdf, and html versions of this manual at  
The html and pdf versions have active weblinks.

This manual was written in the early 1990s for second-year astronomy
students at Utrecht University doing the "Stellar Spectra" exercises at  
In 2010 I revised it and split off a manual treating IDL tools for
solar image sequence analysis ("data cubes") at  
 In 2011 I added usage of David Fanning's "Coyote" cg routines.
I irregularly add more IDL fads and fallacies that I stumble upon.


Why use IDL?
IDL is an interactive programming language with the following advantages:
 - programming language, not a package: make up your own stuff
 - interactive "interpreter": test statements and tricks on the command line
 - array notation: c = a + b handles multi-dimensional arrays (images, movies)
 - journaling: keep a log of all trials, then pick out what worked best
 - save/restore: store a complete session to share with others

IDL is much used in astronomical image processing.  It is still
indispensable in solar physics through the extensive SolarSoft library at  
Why not use IDL?
 - IDL is not open source: IDL licenses are excessively expensive
 - The cheaper IDL Student Edition suffices for very simple programs, but is
     limited to 256x256 arrays (images), has no save/restore, and is
     for sale only in the USA and Canada.  
 - The free GNU GDL clone may serve instead.
 - Use Python instead.  Free!  Probably a better choice for new
   starts since it is open source and has much wider applicability
   and SunPy is well on its way to replace SolarSoft.  Links:  
My habits
I run IDL 6.4 (2007) under Ubuntu linux in the emacs IDLWAVE shell
I don't update IDL anymore, too much ado to renew my "lifelong" license
I often use SolarSoft routines from  
I sometimes use Coyote Graphics "cg" routines from  
I habitually swear at IDL because:
 - it has far to many counter-intuitive idiosyncracies
 - its figure layout differs hardware-dependently between screen and ps
 - its figure annotation remains a hassle even with textoidl
 - it has confusing plot parameter choices between graph area and plot area
 - it starts counting at zero while I count my fingers from 1 to 10
 - its array notation as [column,row] describes images, not matrices
 - its CNTRL d is not next-character-delete as in Emacs but kills the session
 - its CNTRL c does not stop program execution but may kill the session
 - it does not have command-line tab completion (except in IDLWAVE)
 - it does not have a comprehensive !! system parameter reset
 - it started prefering square brackets for array indices much too late
 - its error messages are primitive and often bewildering

Other IDL manuals
The online help (type ? in an IDL session) is reasonably complete but
most examples are too simplistic.  The IDL 6.4 GUI is primitively

IDLWAVE accesses the IDL help files by keystrokes on procedure names.
Extensive manual (but assuming nontrivial knowledge of emacs) at  
The help for IDL 6.1 (2004) is browser-accessible at  
with an alphabetical index at  
A good searcher that can also search IDL Google groups resides at  
Explanatory comment blocks:
  Many user-supplied routines (functions, procedures, full programs), as
  those in the SolarSoft, Astronomy, and Coyote IDL libraries, start
  with explanatory comment blocks between ;+ and ;- lines.  
  You can read these by typing
    doc_library, 'routinename' 
  at the IDL prompt, but it may be more convenient to produce a html help 
  tree that you can inspect with your prefered html browser with, for example:
  (the Coyote library contains this as file: program.documentation.html).
  IDLWAVE opens such ;+...;- comment blocks with keystrokes.  I prefer
  to use my misclib ("show program") to open them in a separate
  editor window.  

  Numerous url's for astronomical IDL are collected at  
  Good resource overview and excellent tutorial at  
  David Fanning: "Traditional IDL graphics" (2011; recommended)
  David Fanning: "IDL Programming Techniques, 2nd Edition" (2000)
  Lilian Gumley: "Practical Idl Programming" 
  Ken Bowman:    "An Introduction to Programming with IDL"

IDL routine libraries
David Fanning's coyote library, including 2011 cg routines used below: get the version under pro/plotting in the Sloan library at  
Astronomy IDL library (not used here; it has been converted to cg):  
SolarSoft = "ssw" = solar physics IDL library (not used here):  
  The menu opener is a separate window at top-right of the page

IDL startup
IDLWAVE for Emacs
  Recommended modus of IDL operation, offering many keystroke shortcuts 
  and debugging options:  
  The IDLWAVE settings in my own .emacs file are shown at  
  My setup defines hyperkey+mouse-middle-click to call my misclib 
  ("show variable') to diagnose the variable content as print or plot or

Solarsoft startup
  In my Ubuntu linux I use a shell script "idl" to always run ssw:
    setenv SSW /usr/local/ssw                      # if ssw stuff sits here
    setenv SSW_INSTR "sot aia hmi trace ontology"  # select instruments 
    source $SSW/gen/setup/setup.ssw

IDL startup code to resolve library clashes
  SolarSoft took Coyote routines long ago and changed them without
  name change.  The worst clasher is "".  The remedy
  is to make IDL search the coyote library before the ssw libraries.  
  SolarSoft puts its ssw libraries before any others, so this cannot be done 
  in a .login file or a shell resource (.bashrc, .cshrc) file, 
  but needs the following use of Coyote's "" in your 
    cd, '/home/usr/idl/coyote',current=thisdir    ; adapt to your coyote path
    cd,current=workdir   ; repeat for your actual working dir
    addtopath,workdir    ; routines in your workdir now override any others
  NB: in "" I also have, following page 47 in Fanning 2011:
    device,retain=2,decomposed=0              ; indexed colors (255 only)
    window,xsize=10,ysize=10,/pixmap,/free    ; initializing window
    wdelete,!d.window                         ; to avoid empty white window

Format of this instruction
  IDL executes on the command line when you hit return ("interpreter").
  This makes it easy to try new statements and statement sequences.
  The up cursor arrow brings back earlier commands.

  The main body of this instruction consists of a didactic sequence of
  command-line entries.  Simply enter the IDL statements consecutively
  on the IDL> command line (type or copy-paste).  Predict their action
  before you enter them!  Many are goodies but some will surprise you

  The end of the instruction describes program structure, parameter
  passing, session saving, etc.




  ? [search term]       ; IDL's help: inspect some IDL routines and concepts

number games
  print,3*5             ; semicolon = comment, IDL skips the rest of the line
  a=3*5                 ; no variable declaration needed
  a = 3 * 5             ; add spaces as you like
  help,a                ; show nature and value of this variable
  help,A                ; IDL is case-insensitive, shows variables in caps 
  whatever_name_you_like$like_this_perhaps = a       ; _ and $ are permitted
  print,whatever_name_you_like$like_this_perhaps     ; no spaces, +, -, *
  spectrum_AR10910=1    ; variable names must start with alphabetic character
  d=32767               ; "short" integers run from -32768 to + 32767
  print,d+1             ; did you predict this value?
  print,d+1.            ; IDLWAVE: SHIFT mouse2 = print variable under cursor
  print,2^15            ; 
  print,2.^15           ; why is the integer word length not 16 bits?
  ? integer             ; check the other number formats
  print,3276700l        ; long integer, sign+31 bits 
  print,3276700ul       ; unsigned long integer, 32 bits
  print,3276700ull      ; unsigned long long integer, 64 bits
  print,3/5.            ; operation with one float makes the result a float
  a=[1,2,3,4,5,6]       ; IDL variables can be 1-8 dimension arrays
  a=[0,a,7]             ; lengthen this 1D "vector" by adding value(s)
  print,a,1E6*a         ; single precision: 6 significant digits, < 10^38
  print,a,1D6*a         ; double precision: 16 significant digits
  print,a,1/a           ; divide by 0 gives error message without stop
  print,a,alog10(10^a)                  ; NaN = Not a Number
  a=1.*a                                ; convert into floats
  print,a,acos(cos(a))                  ; a in radians
  print,a,acos(cos(!pi/a))*180./!pi     ; !something is a system variable
  print,!dpi                            ; double precision 
  print,!dtor                           ; so what is this?
  print,a,acos(cos(!pi/a))*!radeg       ; another one
  print,a,a mod 2
  print,fix(!pi)        ; fix = entier to short integer
  print,long(!pi*1E8)   ; long = entier to long integer
  b=sqrt(a)             ; type of b is defined through its assignment
  help                  ; help without variable shows all variables
  print,'b=',b          ; 'something' is a string
  print,strmid(pathfile,strpos(pathfile,'/',/reverse_search)+1)  ; IDL...
  print,'b = ',string(b,format='(f5.2)')                 ; ancient Fortran 
  print,'b = ',strmid(string(b,format='(f5.2)'),1)       ; IDL...
  print,'b = ',strmid(string(b+1e3,format='(f7.2)'),1,6) ; with zero padding
  print,'b = ',ntostr(b)                 ; that's easy!  Google
  print,'b = ',ntostr(b,format='(f5.2)') ; better spaces removal
  print,'b = ',trim(b)                   ; SSW alternative
  print,'b =',trimd(b,3)                 ; my own number printer, 3 decimals
  c=!pi^50                               ; make a large number
  print,c,c,c,c,c,c,c,c,c                ; wide printout 
  print,ntostr([c,c,c,c,c,c,c,c,c],format='(20E10.3)')  ; compact printout
  print,ntostr([c,c,c,c,c,c,c,c,c],format='(G15.5)') ; chooses float or exp
  if (a=1) then print, 'yes, a=',a else print,'no, a=',a      ; IDL quirk
  a=3                                                         ; try again
  if a eq 1 then print, 'yes, a=',a else print,'no, a=',a     ; better
  if (a eq 1) then print, 'yes, a=',a else print,'no, a=',a   ; nicer
  if ~(a eq 1) then print, 'yes, a=',a else print,'no, a=',a  ; ? ~ operator

one-dimensional arrays
  a=bytarr(100)         ; define a as byte array a[0],..,a[99]=0
  a=intarr(100)         ; define a as integer array a[0],..,a[99]=0
  a=fltarr(100)         ; define a as floating number array a[0],..,a[99]=0.0
  a=dblarr(100)         ; double-precision float array = 0.0000000
  a=a+1                 ; now they are all 1.0000000
  for i=0,19 do a[i]=i  ; remember that IDL starts counting at 0
  a=indgen(20)          ; same thing: a=[0,1,....,19] without a[] declaration
  print,a[0],a[19]      ; always mind the virtual startoff finger 
  print,a[*]            ; same as print,a and as print,a[0:19]
  print,moment(a)       ; mean, variance, skewness, kurtosis (set /double?)
  b=sqrt(a)             ; check that b is a float array - why?  
  c=b                   ; define float array the same size as a and b
  for i=0,19 do if (b[i] gt 3) then c[i] = a[i] + b[i] else c[i] = a[i]
  print,a+b*(b gt 3)       ; the same, processes faster, needs no declaration
  print,a+b>3              ; beware: gives 3 or a+b where (a+b)>3
  print,a+(b>3)            ;         gives a+3 where b<=3, a+b where b>3
  print,a+(b gt 3)         ;         gives a, adding 1 where b>3
  print,a+b gt 3           ;         gives 0 for (a+b)<3, 1 for (a+b)>3
  print,a+b[where(b gt 3)] ;         gives b[10:19] added to a[0:9]
  print,max(1,2,3)         ; did you predict the answer?
two-dimensional arrays
  ar = [[1,2,3],[4,5,6]]   ; integer [3,2] array
  print,ar                 ; 1st index = column number, "runs fastest"
                           ; 2nd index = row number
  print,ar[0],ar[0,0]      ; mind the virtual finger
  print,ar[0,*]            ; * = all values of this index
  print,n_elements(ar)     ; predict all these
  print,total(ar)          ; for large arrays set /double
  print,invert(ar)         ; needs square array
  ar=ar+1                  ; add 1 to each array element
  ar=temporary(ar)+1       ; idem but in place requiring less memory 
  ar=[[vec1],[vec2]]             ; simple 2x2
  print,ar*vec1                  ; f*g  = f[i,j]*g[i,j]
  print,ar#vec1                  ; f#g  = columns x rows (IDL habit)
  print,ar##vec1                 ; f##g = rows x columns = transpose(f#g)
  print,ar#reverse(ar)           ; predict or check manually
  print,ar##reverse(ar)          ; predict or check manualy
  print,invert(ar)#ar            ; unit diagonal, OK
  ar=[[1,2,3],[4,5,6],[7,8,9]]       ; now 3x3 without virtual finger
  ar=indgen(3,3)+1                   ; the same
  print,invert(ar)#ar                ; should be unit diagonal but isn't
  arinv=invert(ar,status,/double)    ; try again
  print,arinv#ar                     ; as bad in double precision 
  print,status                       ; status=1: singular, so invalid 

three-dimensional arrays
  ar=indgen(3,4,5)+1          ; let's say 3x4 px frames in a 5-frame movie
  print,ar                    ; successive indices run slower
  ar3=ar(*,*,2)               ; third movie frame
  print,total(ar)             ; sum all elements
  print,total(ar,1)           ; (4,5) row sums = sum over other dimensions
  print,total(ar,2)           ; (3,5) column sums
  print,total(ar,3)           ; (3,4) frame sums
  print,sizear       ; nr dims, dim1, dim2, dim3, type (integer), nr elements
  mean=total(ar,3)/sizear(3)  ; temporal mean of this movie
  xslice=ar[*,0,*]            ; distill (x,t) timeslice at y=0
  help,xslice                 ; oops, still 3D array
  xslice=reform(xslice)       ; reform removes degenerate dimensions
  help,xslice                 ; 2D array now
  br=[[[ar]],[[ar]],[[ar]]]   ; what is this?

     ; more of the same / soortgelijks / und so weiter 

  delvar,ar  ; throw away free memory but this kills your main program
  ar=0       ; might get rid of large array but leaves a hole in memory


basic plot
  x=findgen(100)          ; float array x=0., 1., ...., 99.
  plot,sin(x/10)          ; 10 doesn't have to be 10. since x is float
  y=sin(x/5.)/exp(x/50.)  ; but I like float specification for safety
  plot,y                  ; plot,x,y uses array index for x if not given
  plot,alog10(x),y        ; x and y may differ in array size 
  oplot,alog10(x),y^2     ; over-plots in existing graph
  plot,alog10(x),y^2+10   ; too much emptiness in this graph
  plot,alog10(x),y^2+10,/ynozero   ; /ynozero is alternative for ynozero=1 
  plot,abs(fft(y,1)^2),/ylog       ; power spectrum on logarithmic scale
  plot_io,x,abs(y)+0.1)   ; log-linear plotter, not in the IDL help?
  erase                   ; wipe current plot window
  wdelete                 ; kill current plot window
  while !d.window ne -1 do wdelete,!d.window  ; kill all IDL windows ("easy") 

Coyote cg window alternative
  cgplot,x,y,/window ; resizable window, "save-as-postscript" clicker

plot beautification 
  plot,x,y,psym=1          ; defined for psym=1-7,10; try them out
                           ; something=something: optional "keyword" parameter
                           ; check PLOT (? plot); check GRAPHICS KEYWORDS
  plot,x,y,psym=-4         ; plot both curve and diamonds at sample values
  plot,x,y,linestyle=1     ; defined for linestyle=0,...,5, try them all
  oplot,x,y*2,linestyle=2  ; overplot another graph in the same frame
  plots,20,70,psym=2,symsize=1.5      ; mark location with asterisk 
  plots,[20,70],[-0.5,+0.5]           ; overplot line segment [x1,x2],[y1,y2]
  plots,[50,50],[-1E10,1E10],noclip=0 ; overplot line cut at edges (NOT /clip)
  plot,x,y,xtitle='x axis',ytitle='y axis',thick=2,xthick=2,ythick=2,$
      charthick=2,charsize=2                     ; $ extends to next line
  ytitle=textoidl("sin(x/\alpha) e^{-x/\beta}")   
  print,ytitle          ; !U=up, !D=down, !N=normal, !7=Greek, !X=entry font 
  angstrom=string(197B)  ; alternative = "byte constant" character code
    ; find symbol codes such as this by Googling <table isolatin1>
    ; but they may not be valid in the PostScript font you choose
    ; why the &$#@$% doesn't IDL accept full latex strings for all fonts?
  angstrom=cgsymbol("angstrom") ; Coyote cg, probably most robust
  xtitle='x  ['+angstrom+']'
  alpha=5                                         ; let's add annotation
  alphaspec=textoidl("\alpha = ")+strtrim(string(alpha),2) ; not so simple...
  alphaspec=greek('alpha')+' = '+ strtrim(string(alpha),2) ; cg alternative
  alphaname=strlowcase(scope_varname(alpha))  ; get variable name as string
  alphaspec=greek(alphaname)+' = '+ strtrim(string(alpha),2) 
  xyouts,80,0.7,alphaspec,charsize=2              ; x,y in data units
  xyouts,0.7,0.8,/norm,alphaspec,charsize=2       ; x,y in window size units
  plot,x,y,xrange=[-10,+110],yrange=[-1.5,1.5]    ; your choice axis lengths
                           ; now the axes obey your ranges exactly

plot beautification in a Coyote cg window
  cgplot,x,y,xtitle=xtitle,ytitle=ytitle,charsize=2,$    ; similar to above
    /window,$       ; resizable window 
    aspect=2./3,$   ; fixed aspect ratio
    psym=-15,$      ; many more choices; see doc_library,'symcat'
    /_extra,thick=2,xthick=2,ythick=2,charthick=2   ; any plot keywords 
    ; overplot is now an option of cgplot (add /add), not a separate routine
    ; cgcolors: colornames=cgcolor(/names) & print,colornames,format='(6a18)'
    ;   cgplot can also easily color curves, symbols, etc
    ;   see also doc_library,'cgcolor' or browse program.documentation.html
  cgtext,80,0.7,alphaspec,charsize=2,/addcmd      ; replaces xyouts

PostScript figure with traditional IDL
  set_plot,'ps'                 ; change plot output to postscript format
  device,filename=''    ; the plot commands now write to this file
  plot,x,y,xtitle=xtitle,ytitle=ytitle,thick=2, xthick=2,ythick=2,$
      charthick=2,charsize=2               ; redo all the above 
  xyouts,80,0.7,alphaspec,charsize=2       ; idem
  device,/close                 ; done, write postscript file
  set_plot,'x'          ; back to output on Unix/linux/MacOS Xwindows screen 
  ; set_plot,'win'      ; back to output on a Micro$oft Windows screen
  ; help,/device        ; /device is the same as device=1 (enable)
  $gv                  ; starting $ on command line escapes to shell
  filename=''           ; make it a variable for
  spawn,'gv '+filename          ; generic shell escape, also in a program 

  OOPS! ..|.. IDL!  The ps plot differs much from what you had on
  your screen.  The thickness parameters in plot do NOT apply to ps
  output.  Also the charsize multiplier in plot does NOT work.  The
  vertical annotation spacing differs (even hardware-dependently,
  depending on the character pixel matrix).  So, this demo exhibits
  severe IDL shortcomings.  First, there is no clicker or single
  command to obtain ps output that reproduces exactly what you have on
  your screen - you cannot develop a nice on-screen display and then
  hit or command "save as ps".  Instead, you have to repeat the whole
  sequence of plot commands that made your nice on-screen display once
  again for the ps "device", as shown above.  Second, there are
  inconsistencies between such plotting on the screen and in ps, and
  some of these are hardware-dependent.  The awkward upshot is that
  there is not much point in beautifying the on-screen product.
  Instead, you should beautify the ps output, independent of what you
  get on the screen.  Because the plot thickness keywords do not work
  for ps, one then has to muck around with the various !p.thick system
  parameter settings.  These are sticky, so changes must subsequently
  be undone not to get problems later (for example in the next
  on-screen plot).  Similary, the IDL font codes for Greek characters
  differ between the screen and some ps fonts.  Argh...

  However, David Fanning's cg routines with their /window option can
  serve to develop IDL figures on your screen and obtain ps output
  like these (and raster pixmaps) without explicit sequence repeat but
  indeed per clicker or a single command.  The sequence repeat still
  occurs but is hidden within cg routines that call the coyote-library
  "ps_start" and "ps_end" routines internally.  Fanning added
  "evalkeyword" and "evalparams" options to provide run-time
  evaluation for things that differ between devices, such as thickness
  keywords and Greek characters.  See below.  They work nicely for
  simple figures, but for elaborate ones you may prefer to go back to
  the traditional repeat-sequence approach (I usually do).

  Below I first demonstrate the traditional way of making postscript
  graphs through repeating the entire plot sequence, then coyote cg
  usage to avoid such repetition.

Postscript figure following Alfred de Wijn
  set_plot,'ps'                                ; postscript format
  !p.font=1                                    ; true-type fonts
  !p.thick=2 & !x.thick=2 & !y.thick=2         ; & = multiple commands/line
  !p.charthick=2                               ; reset system default
  xsize=8.8                                    ; cm; this is A&A column width
  ysize=xsize*2/(1+sqrt(5))                    ; aspect golden ratio 1.61803
    /tt_font,set_font='Times',font_size=11     ; fit size to publication font
  ytitle=textoidl("sin(x/\alpha) e^{-x/\beta}")      ; repeat for ps font
  alphaspec=textoidl("\alpha = ")+strtrim(string(alpha),2)   ; idem 
    position=[0.2,0.2,0.95,0.95],/normal,$     ; set margins around plot
    xticklen=0.03,yticklen=0.03*ysize/xsize,$  ; same-length ticks
  xyouts,80,0.7,alphaspec                      ; x,y in data units
  set_plot,'x'          ; back to output on Unix/linux/MacOS Xwindows screen 
  !p.font=-1            ; back to default (Hershey) fonts for screen display
  !p.thick=0 & !x.thick=0 & !y.thick=0 & !p.charthick=0  ; reset defaults
  spawn,'cat '+filename+$                            ; replace irritating
    '| sed "s|Graphics produced by IDL|'+filename+$  ; IDL plot banner
    '|" >; mv '+filename      ; with the file name 
  spawn,'gv '+filename              ; set gv to "watch file" for rewrites
   ; NB: textoidl doesn't give true-type font but at least it works in ps;
         for Greek it has to be run again, now in the ps device environment
   ; NB: I minimize the bounding box later with epstopdf, pdfcrop, pdf2ps
PostScript figure with Coyote ps_start and ps_end
  xsize=8.8 & ysize=xsize*2/(1+sqrt(5))
             ; default ps thicknesses are temporarily reset to 2
  !p.thick=3 & !x.thick=3 & !y.thick=3 & !p.charthick=3  ; if you prefer 3
  ytitle=textoidl("sin(x/\alpha) e^{-x/\beta}")      ; textoidl repeat for ps
  alphaspec=textoidl("\alpha = ")+strtrim(string(alpha),2)   ; idem 
  ps_end     ; back to screen windows, Hershey fonts, original ! values
  spawn,'gv ctdemo2.eps'

PostScript figure from a Coyote cg screen window
    charsize=2,xtitle=xtitle,position=[0.25, 0.25, 0.9, 0.9],$
      thick='(! eq "PS")?5:1',$      ; 5 for ps, 1 for screen 
      xthick='(! eq "PS")?5:2',$     ; ps thick because size is large
      ythick='(! eq "PS")?5:2',$     ; PS must be in capitals
      charthick='(! eq "PS")?5:1',$
      ytitle='textoidl("sin(x/\alpha) e^{-x/\beta}")'  ; Greek, redo for ps
    'greek(alpha)+" = "',evalparams=[0,0,1],$          ; Greek, redo for ps
  cgtext,0.77,0.8,/norm,$          ; 0.77 results from manual fitting on ps 
    strtrim(string(alpha),2),$                         ; normal parameter
       ; click on file > save as postscript > ps output; or instead enter:
  spawn,'gv cgdemo2.eps'

add a second axis
  IDL's AXIS routine to generate extra axes has the annoying failure
  that it may not plot the label zero when an axis starts at zero.
  Below an example how to correct this, plotting functions "tau(height)"
  and "temp(height)", the tau axis at left, the temp axis at right:
  plotaspect=1.62                               ; golden ratio
    position=[0.2,0.2,0.8,0.95],/normal,$       ; set margins around plot
    xticklen=0.03,yticklen=0.03/plotaspect,$    ; same-length ticks
    xtitle='height  [km]',ytitle='log  (optical depth)',$
    (taurange[1]-taurange[0])                  ; rescale temp to log(tau)
  oplot,height,tempscaled,thick=3              ; overplot temp(height)
  axis,yaxis=1,yrange=temprange,ystyle=1,$     ; plot dummy axis to get ticks
    ytitle='',ytickname=replicate(' ',60),ytick_get=tempaxticks
  axis,yaxis=1,yrange=temprange,ystyle=1,$     ; plot temp axis at right
    ytitle='temperature  [K]',ytickname=tempticknames

multi-panel figures
  IDL offers !p.multi for stacking multiple plots into one display.
  Quite cumbersome and non-versatile.  Alfred de Wijn has a better
  recipe at:  
   I myself never make multi-panel displays with IDL.  Instead, I make
  fully-annotated separate graphs and stack them up in LaTeX, using
  LaTeX macros to remove superfluous annotation between panels.  This
  way I choose the figure layout only when writing the paper, which
  makes collaboration in the analysis phase much easier. See:  

two-dimensional array plotting
  k=indgen(100)             ; let's make a nice 100x100 array
  f=sin(k/5.)/exp(k/50.)    ; the same f(x) as y(x) above
  g=cos(k/5.)*exp(k/50.)    ; similar function g(y) for the other coordinate
  s=f#g                     ; make an array
  help,s                    ; a 2-dim (100,100) float array 
  print,s[0:4,0:9]          ; better use square brackets for array elements
  plot,s[7,*]               ; plot 8th column (mind the virtual zero finger)
  oplot,s[*,95],linestyle=5 ; overplot 96th row, dashed
  tvscl,s                   ; view as byte-scaled image
    ; Compare the image (in the bottom-left plot corner), graph, and printout.
    ; The first index is the column number, the second index the row number.
    ; IDL's [column,row] is opposite to matrix algebra.  See ? array majority.
    ; IDL's [column,row] fits the notion of an image f(x,y), that's why. 
    ; The printout has s[0,0] at the top-left corner, but
    ; the image display has s[0,0] at its lower-left corner ("origin").
  print,minmax(s)           ; show extrema
  print,array_indices(s,where(s eq max(s)))  ; the two plots sample max(s)
  print,s[5:9,94:96]        ; check
  surface,s                 ; I dislike such plots, hard to read off values
  shade_surf,s              ; idem
  show3,s                   ; yet worse
  xsurface,s                ; primitive tool to change viewing point etc
  isurface,s                ; not for me
  cgsurface,s               ; Coyote alternative, much better
                            ;   grab and change viewpoint with left mouse
                            ;   zoom in and out with right/middle mouse
                            ;   various clicker options
  cgsurface,s,/shaded       ; idem
  cgcontour,s,nlevels=20,/window  ; Coyote alternative in resizable window
  cghistoplot,s,nbins=50,/window  ; histogram = occurrence distribution
  hist=histogram(s,nbins=50,omin=omin,omax=omax) ; the same clumsily a la IDL

image display
  ssize=SIZE(s)              ; get array type and size
  nx=5*ssize[1]              ; ssize[0] = number dimensions
  ny=5*ssize[2]              ; etcetera for more dimensions
  s5=rebin(s,nx,ny)          ; resample s for larger display
  tvscl,congrid(s,188,188,/interp) ; arbitrary resizing (slow)
  window,xsize=nx,ysize=ny   ; window equal to image size
  tv,s5                      ; oops, tv expects value range 0-255
  print,min(s5),max(s5)      ; show extrema
  tv,s5<0                    ; same selection, tv wraps negative values
  tv,(s5-min(s5))/(max(s5)-min(s5))*255     ; rescale to range (0-255)
  tvscl,s5                   ; same
  s5b=bytscl(s5)             ; make bytscale image (8 bits = shades 0 - 255)
  tv,s5b                     ; same as tvscl,s5
  s5pos=fltarr(nx,ny)        ; declare same-size array set to zero
  s5pos=0.*s5                ; the same if you don't have nx, ny
  indpos=where(s5 gt 0)      ; 1D index vector counting along rows 
  s5pos[indpos]=s5[indpos]   ; equate to s5 for only these indices
  tvscl,s5pos                ; shows s5 where s5>0, 0 elsewhere 
  tvscl,s5>0                 ; the same but quicker
  tvscl,s5 gt 0              ; I hope you expected that. Honestly?
  tvscl,s5<(-1)              ; parentheses needed
  tvscl,s5>(-1)<1            ; clip cutoffs at -1 and +1
  tv,bytscl(s5,min=-1,max=1) ; idem
  indcut=where(s5 gt -1 and s5 lt 1)  ; try the same this way
  s5cut=fltarr(nx,ny)                 ; where gives 1D vector, need array 
  s5cut[indcut]=s5[indcut]            ; s5cut equals s5 where > -1 and < 1
  tvscl,s5cut                         ; why different from tvscl,s5>(-1)<1?
  profiles,s5cut             ; slice image, left mouse toggles rows, columns
                             ; stop with right mouse (with cursor on image)
  loadct                     ; set colour table; choose e.g. 4
  tv,s5b                     ; hideous; real scientists prefer monochrome
  xpalette                   ; tool to adjust color table
  xloadct                    ; idem (I like this one better)
  tvscl,s5b>127              ; display brighter half (not the same as s5>0)
  tvscl,s5[0:nx/2-1,0:ny/2-1]  ; bottom-left quarter bytescaled on its own

PostScript image following Alfred de Wijn
  nx=5       ; define s again but let's now have large pixels
  ny=5       ; square image
  xaxisarr=indgen(nx)*float(nx)/(nx-1) ; add 1 for pixelated image
  yaxisarr=indgen(ny)*float(ny)/(ny-1) ; add 1 for pixelated image
  k=indgen(nx) & f=sin(k/5.)/exp(k/50.) & g=cos(k/5.)*exp(k/50.) & s=f#g 
  set_plot,'ps'                                      ; postscript output
  !p.font=1                        tv                  ; true type fonts
  !p.thick=2 & !x.thick=2 & !y.thick=2 & !p.charthick=2  ; I like thick
  tv,bytscl(s),0.15,0.15,xsize=0.8,ysize=0.8,/normal       ; bytescaled data
  contour,s,xaxisarr,yaxisarr,/nodata,/noerase,/xstyle,/ystyle,$  ; add axes
    xtitle='x  [px]',ytitle='y  [px]'                    
    ; The tv and contour position and size values must correspond
    ; (here square image as 8 cm square with borders 1.5 and 0.5 cm);
    ; the wider bottom and left margins (1.5 cm) serve for axis labels.
    ; Bware: position x and y ranges must be equal for square pixels
    ; The negative tick lengths produce outward ticks.
    ; Redefine the indgen arrays for axis scaling
  device,/close          ; write ps file
  set_plot,'x'           ; back to output on Unix/linux/MacOS Xwindow screen 
  ; set_plot,'win'       ; back to output on Micro$oft Windows screen
  !p.font=-1             ; back to default IDL (Hershey) fonts
  !p.thick=0 & !x.thick=0 & !y.thick=0 & !p.charthick=0   ; reset 
  spawn,'cat '+filename+$                            ; replace irritating
    '| sed "s|Graphics produced by IDL|'+filename+$  ; IDL plot banner
    '|" >; mv '+filename      ; with the file name 
  spawn,'gv '+filename             ; set gv to "watch file" for rewrites
    ; NB: Mac users see smoothed pixels in Preview; first use epstopdf

PostScript image with Coyote ps_start and ps_end
  xsize=8.8 & ysize=xsize*2/(1+sqrt(5))
  !p.thick=3 & !x.thick=3 & !y.thick=3 & !p.charthick=3  ; cg default=2  
    /axes,axkeywords={font:1,ticklen:-0.02,xtitle:'x  [px]',ytitle:'y  [px]'}
  ps_end    ; this also resets the ! thicknesses back to what they were
  spawn,'gv ctdemo3.eps'
    ; Other axis scales: define axkeywords xrange and yrange

PostScript image from a Coyote cg screen window
    /axes,axkeywords={font:1,ticklen:-0.02,xtitle:'x  [px]',ytitle:'y  [px]'}
  ; get ps by clicking on 'save window > as ps file' under 'file', or use
  spawn,'gv cgdemo3.eps'
   ; NB: the cgimage screen image is smoothed by /interpolate,
   ;     whereas the ps output remains pixelated.  Use rebin (as above for
   ;     s5) to smooth the latter too.  I might do that for a math
   ;     function but I wouldn't for actual data.  
   ; NB: similarly, the addition of an endpoint to the axes befits
   ;     a pixelated image but not a math function.

read/write formatted files
  openw,1,'myfile.ext'  ; open file myfile.ext on "logical unit" 1 for writing
  printf,1,s            ; write free-format file
  close,1               ; free "lun" 1
  openr,1,'myfile.ext'  ; now open that file for reading as unit 1
  ss=fltarr(100,100)    ; define variable type and size
  readf,1,ss            ; read free-format file from unit 1 into array ss
  help,/files           ; show which files are open as "unit"
  close,/all            ; free all units, closing the files

read/write binary files
  writeu,readu               ; unformatted binary read/write, faster
  openr,1,/xdr,'myfile.ext'  ; portable binary format, hardware independent

random access into a file through assoc
    ; to sample files that exceed the available memory
    ; very useful for terabyte-challenged laptop owners!
  get_lun, unit                      ; the official way to open a file
  openr,unit,'big-3D-data_cube'      ; file is intarr(nx,ny,nt)
  p = assoc(unit, intarr(nx,ny))     ; define image addressing 
  image=p[1000]                      ; this gets image[*,*,1000]
  free_lun,unit                      ; closes the file too

FITS files (much used in astronomy; run ssw)
  writefits,'filename.fits',array [,header]      ; adds header if you don't 
  array=readfits('filename.fits' [,header])      ; no lun specification needed
  mwrfits,something,filename,/create             ; multi-purpose fits write
  something=mrdfits(filename)                    ; multi-purpose fits read
  header=headfits('filename.fits')               ; read header only
  nx=fxpar(header,'naxis1')                      ; get size x dimension
  openr,1,'filename.fits',/swap_if_little_endian ; fits files are big_endian
  p = assoc(1,intarr(nx,ny),2880)                ; N x 2880 = skip fits header
  data_swap=swap_endian(data)  ; swap endian of variable, array, structure

saving IDL command sequences
  journal,'filename'       ; copies all typed commands to a journal file
  save,filename='name.sav' ; saves a full session (not in Student Edition)
  save,filename='name.sav',var1,var2,...     ; save only selected variables 
  restore,'name.sav'       ; restart that session (you or your colleague)

read ASCII tables
   using as example file falc.dat (solar atmosphere model) at:  
  with (Google for it; in idlastro library) 	  
    NB: add eg: ,format='I,A' for non-float initial integer + string columns

  primitive, as above:
    falc=fltarr(11,80)   ; 11 columns, 80 lines, no string entries
    for iskip=1,4 do readf,1,dummy  ; skip 4-line header 
  as a structure, with (Google for it; in sdssidl library):
    print,falc[0].height  ; print the first value (top of FALC)
    h=falc.height         ; select variable
    NB: does not work for columns with irregular strings
  as a structure with IDL's own and
    falctemplate=ascii_template('falc.dat')        ; opens GUI, work through
    save,falctemplate,filename='falctemplate.sav'  ; save for next time
    restore,'falctemplate.sav'                     ; use next time
      missing_value=0,template=falctemplate)       ; read into structure
    h=table.field01[*]                             ; get first column

write ASCII tables
  	; google for the pro; up to 14 vectors
        ; alternative: SSW


  Start a new file; edit it (Windows: IDL desktop; Unix:
  external editor or idlde.  Emacs with IDLWAVE gives great pro layout
  and offers many shortcuts (Google idlwave).

  In linux the file name must be lowercase.  Its structure:

  pro procedurename,param1,param2,...,keyword1=keyword1,....
    ; standard header with information
    IDL statements
    IDL statements     ; all local parameters are only known within this pro
  function functionname,param1,param2,...,keyword1=keyword1,....
    ; standard header with information
    IDL statements
    IDL statements
    something=...                ; value to the function
    return,something             ; output of the function              
  ; -------- start of main-level program (if any) ----------

  ;; pro routinename,param1,param2,..,keyword1=keyword1,.. ; in when perfect 
    IDL statement   
    IDL statement 


    stop     ; for intermediate command-line inspections, continue with .con

    IDL statement
    IDL statement 

  The last "main-level part" is a sequence of IDL statements after the
  last procedure or function that does not start with PRO or FUNCTION.
  It must end with END.  You compile this program with ".com filename"
  and run it with ".r filename" or ".rnew filename" which cleans out
  earlier variables and recompiles too.  The latter recompiles the
  subroutines within the file also.

  After the program completion all main-level variables remain
  available for inspection and tests on the command line.  Use this
  main level for trying out and adding new things.  Insert temporary
  stops to check on local variables or diagnose an error.  When your
  development is done, then convert the program into a procedure or
  function by inserting its name as "pro routinename" or "function
  routinename" above the start of the statements, as illustrated above.
  This new routine may go to a separate file or may
  remain in the present file.  You can add a main part
  calling it underneath for modification testing.  If you do this
  rightaway then on-the-fly testing while developing a subroutine
  is very easy when using emacs IDLWAVE.

  It is confusing that IDL procedures/functions have .pro extensions
  but that IDL main programs have these also.  And perhaps your IDL
  batchfiles too.  I use .idl extensions for the latter and instruct
  emacs to give these IDLWAVE appearance with .emacs entry: (setq
  auto-mode-alist (cons '("\\.idl\\'" . idlwave-mode) auto-mode-alist))

  It is confusing that somename() is not always interpreted by IDL as
  a function but sometimes as a variable, because in older days
  (before edition 5.0) IDL used parentheses instead of square brackets
  for array indices.  You can ascertain function interpretation and
  recompilation with: forward_function somename (proname without quotes).

Using procedures and functions
  IDL> .run programname            ; compilation (only main program is run)
  IDL> .r programname              ; idem; IDL accepts unique abbreviations
  IDL> .rnew programname           ; first discard all existing variables
  IDL> .r -t programnname          ; show content in manpage format
  IDL> .com      ; compile a procedure or function
  IDL> procedurename,param1,...    ; run a compiled procedure
  IDL> a=functionname(param1,...)  ; evaluate a compiled function 
  IDL> reset_session               ; wipe everything, also commons, & restart

  IDLWAVE: remain in the emacs window with your program and use its tons
  of fast keybindings including (with C = CONTROL):
    C-c C-d C-c   ; compile and run program (set auto separate shell opening)
    C-c C-d C-p   ; print value of variable under cursor in 2nd window
    SHIFT-mouse2  ; idem
    C-c ?         ; show help for procedure or keyword under cursor
    C ALT q       ; re-indent the routine the cursor is in 
    C-c C-d C-x   ; jummp to next syntax error

  function example (in a separate file
    function addup,arr
      ; sums 1D array ARR (but IDL's total is faster and more general)
      if (arraysize[0] ne 1) then print,'addup input is not a 1D array'
      for i=0,arraysize[1]-1 do sumarr=sumarr+arr[i]
    IDL> .com addup               ; recompile after every program change
    IDL> try=findgen(100)         ; try = floats 0.,......,99.
    IDL> print,addup(try)
    IDL> print,total(try)         ; check with IDL array summation
  "Disappearing variables": after an error in a procedure or function
  your session stops within that procedure/function.  HELP displays
  the local variables valid there.  That serves to check out these,
  e.g. by printing or plotting or manipulating them.  RETURN gets you
  back one level higher.  RETALL gets you back to the top level where
  the variables of your main program or session reside.  Recompiling a
  routine (.com procedurename) also returns to the top. IDLWAVE offers
  slick checkpoint jumping.

  If you restart after a stop in a subordinate routine you are likely 
  to get error messages as:
    "Attempt to subscript XXX with <YYY (ZZZ)> is out of range"
    "Variable is undefined: XXXX
  which means that you forgot to type return or retall and are still stuck
  within the subroutine.

  STOP in a procedure/function/main stops it right there to let you
  inspect the local variables at that place in the statement sequence.
  Continue with .continue (or .con).

  .skip N on he command line: skip N lines and continue.  Default N=1.
  .out on the command line: completes the subroutine but stops after 
  exiting back to the higher level.  

  Keyword inheritance: if your program uses e.g. plot, you don't have
  to supply all the plot keywords as parameters.  Add a keyword
  _extra=plotkeywords to your routine definition and use the same in
  its call of plot.  Now you can add any plot keyword to the call of
  your program.  See ? inheritance.  Unfortunately, you can specify
  only one such inheritance per routine call, but you may have layered
  inheritances (one routine calling another, each with its own

conditional statements
   if (i gt 16) then begin   ; such sequences can also be run interactively
     IDL statement           ; on the command line by first typing
     IDL statement           ; IDL> .run
   endif else begin          ; then enter the sequence, and conclude with
     IDL statement           ; IDL> end
     IDL statement
  if (y eq 3) then x=2 else x=1  ; relational operators: EQ NE LE LT GE GT
  for j=0,9 do number[j]=sin(region[j]*!pi)    ; ! gets system variable
  for j=0,20,2 do begin                    ; third number = step 2
  while (a and (cnt ne 0)) do begin        ; logical operators: AND OR XOR
    print,'Still going at count: ',cnt     
  if (n eq 0) goto, JUMP
  IDL statement
  IDL statement
  IDL statement
     ; but since good programmers never use goto, a better solution is:
  if (n neq 0) then begin
    IDL statement
    IDL statement
     ; or the use of break
  for itrans=0,ntrans-1 do begin
    IDL statements
    if (transition[itrans].i eq i and transition[itrans].j eq j) then break

  if (keyword_set(fontsize) eq 0) then fontsize=9   ; set keyword default
    ; but keyword_set=0 when supplied keyword=0, giving non-zero default
    ; therefore better use: if (n_elements(fontsize) eq 0) then fontsize=9

loop speedup
  - use implicit loops instead of explicit loops wherever possible,
    so not:
        for i=0,100 do intensity[i]=planck(wavelength,temp[i])
    by making sure that your function ( here) can handle
    arrays (temperature here, idem for wavelength, but you cannot call both
    as unsubscripted arrays).  With my laptop the second version is
    typically 20x faster.

  - replace an asterisk as first array index on the left-hand side of an
    assignment statement by zero, so not:
      for i=0,n-1 do array[*,i]=shift(array[*,i],delta[i])
    but instead:
      for i=0,n-1 do array[0,i]=shift(array[*,i],delta[i])
    which looks like an IDL mistake but actually speeds it up, in my
    case typically 3x.  See  
passing parameters
  - main programs
      when running a sequence of programs, each with 
        .r programname 
      on the command line, the subsequently called programs know the 
      variables of the earlier called programs. The most primitive way 
      to pass parameters.

  - @batchfile.  A file with a sequence of single-line IDL
      commands can be run as @batchfilename on the command line or
      from a program (only spaces are then allowed before the @
      symbol, on a new line).  The file may not contain begin-end
      blocks unless concatenated by $ signs.  If an @file is run on
      the command line it may contain ".r programname" lines.  This
      way you can make an @script concatenating multiple main progams.
      (I give these files extension .idl instead of .pro, and instruct
      IDLWAVE via .emacs to treat these as IDL pro files.)

  - procedure/function parameters 
      The parameter names in the call may of course differ from the
      corresponding parameter names in the procedure/function body.
      However, if the procedure/function changes the parameters, the
      changed versions are passed back to the calling program at the
      procedure/function completion.  If values are entered in the
      call they do not change.  See IDL help ? passing parameters.

  - commons 
      The traditional FORTRAN manner of passing blocks of parameters.
      Example: common fourier,nx,ny,nt,cad 
      Put it in all pro's that need the parameters, and in the main
      part if need be.  Initiate the parameter values in the main
      part, or in the first pro that is called.  The traditional
      problem is that the same parameter name may already be used in
      another program (by another programmer).  Also, common blocks
      cannot be shared between multiple IDL instances.

  - structures 
      The newer way.  Much used in SolarSoft data reduction software.  
      They collect big parameters sets under a single name or anonymously 
      to be passed as parameter.  See the help and/or Google, e.g.:  
	b='Never a dull moment with Kees D'
	s={a:a,b:b,c:c,d:d}   ; defintion without name: anonymous structure
	print, s.a
	print, s.b+'. from whom I took this example'

	- pointers
      serve for variables that persist outside a routine, for
      example pointing at a given location (address) within a
      structure.  See:  
      c32=(*hatom.Cij_ptr)[*,2,1]   ; select a vector using a pointer

  Interactive gui's to use mouse actions.  Not treated here but nice examples
  (from Oslo) are shown in my

programming hints
  - never ever forget that IDL array indices start at 0 
  - never forget that you may need to type "retall" at some error
  - try, experiment, check on the command line, than insert into program 
  - split programs in separate procedures and functions, test separately 
  - use parameters instead of numbers to get dynamical adaptivity
  - use size(array) to get unknown array dimensions in procedures
  - choose clear variable names (in English please)
  - add lots of explanatory comments (in English please)
  - add detailed explanation at procedure/subroutine start between
      ;+ and ;- lines for doc_library (as astronlib and SolarSoft do;
      Emacs IDLWAVE inserts a template at C-c C-h)
  - answer a procedure call without parameters or a function() call with:
      if (n_params() lt N) then begin    ; N = nr required parameters
        print,'procedurename, yyy, zzz'
        print,'   yyy = ...' 
        return       ; return,-1 for a function called as x=function() 
  - indent begin ... end structures (two spaces is my habit)
  - journal,'filename' records all your command-line entries, useful for
      subsequent conversion of the successful trials into programs
  - use "save" to copy your work to a colleague

Rob Rutten 2017-12-11