Introduction to Matlab and Octave


Install it!

Install MATLAB following the instructions from the IT services

or install GNU Octave from the Web

Matrix-oriented programming

Matrix-oriented programming

Why MATLAB/Octave?

MATLAB and/or Octave will allow you to:

The interface

The interface

Matlab and Octave come with very similar interfaces containing, at least, the following elements:


MATLAB interface.


Octave GUI.

The command window This is the brain of the program. You can use this as a simple calculator or to call functions or scripts. Ultimately, this is the only element you need to use Matlab or Octave!

Try writing the following commands and hit enter:

To clean the command window, use the command clc.
As most of the console interfaces, the command window has memory: try using the up arrow key.

Current directory and browser

When you want to interact with files (e.g. calling your own scripts or creating files with your results or graphs), you need to know where you are working. Therefore, make sure that the address you see at the top of the screen is the folder you want to work in. You can see, create, delete or open your files using your system browser (explorer, finder, nautilus, etc.) or the browser integrated in Matlab or Octave.

Create a new file called my-first-file.m.

Avoid using spaces, most symbols, or start with numbers when naming your files. Instead of spaces, use the underscore symbol (_).

Also, note that Matlab files always end with .m

The editor

This is just a basic text editor. The files that you can edit do not contain any information about formatting. You can open these files using any text editor (e.g. notepad). However, the integrated editor format the text to highlight the meaning of the text in the Matlab language.

Open my_first_file.m and write:

% This is my first Matlab script.
disp(’Hello world’)

then run it using the command my_first_file (no .m) in the command window, or selecting run in the menu.


This is the memory of Matlab/Octave. The last answer given in the command window is usually stored as ans.

Write x=3+2 in the command window.

The parameter x will appear in the Workspace.

Use the command who or whos to display a summary of the workspace in the command window, and the command clear to remove all the parameters in the workspace.

What can we put in the Workspace?

Parameters with one number

As for file names, avoid using spaces, most symbols, or start parameter’s names with numbers. Ending with semicolon (;) prevents the output to be shown in the command window, although the parameter is stored in memory. You can check that the value of C14halflife is in memory by typing C14halflife in the command window.

Other “special" accepted values:

Inf means “Infinite” and NaN means “Not a Number”. You can also generate them by computing 1/0 or 0/0 in the command window.

Array of numbers

Use length(data) to check the size of your array.

Try also linspace(0,3,20) and logspace(0,2,5) to get equally distributed numbers in the linear or logarithmic space. Use odds13 if you want it as a column. Access a single (data(3) or data(end)) or several values of an array (a(7:10))


Note that anything you write after the % symbol is ignored. % is used for comments.

You can also create a matrix by repeating an array using repmat:


Use help repmat to know more about this.

These matrices are 2-D (rows and columns). However, MATLAB and Octave are also able to handle matrices in multiple dimensions. E.g. ones(3,2,5) is a 3-D matrix.

Use size(B) to check the size of your matrix (rows and columns), or nnumel(B) to get the number of elements in B.


Strings are parameters containing text:

Strings are useful when working with sample or location names. MATLAB and Octave can handle strings and provide powerful tools to manipulate and operating with text, such as regular expressions. However, these programming languages were not primarily designed to work with text, and string manipulation can be very frustrating at the beginning. Therefore, we will restrict the use of text to sample names or simple labels.

Sometimes it will be useful to find a sample in a list. For example, use strcmp to find the position of the student named Trish: strcmp(’Trish’,students)*

Small functions

Simple formulas can be defined by using defining the parameters with @(Parameters):

Try temp_fahrenheit(15) and decay(C14halflife,20000)

Boolean data

Boolean data is a type of data that has one of two possible values: true (1) or false (0). In MATLAB, logical is usually generated used equalities or inequalities:

Note that == and \sim= are used in MATLAB to determine equality or inequality, and = to define a parameter.

We can combine boolean data using boolean operators: & (and) and | (or).

E.g. ( A<5 | B<30 ).

Boolean data can also be use as indexes if the boolean array or matrix has the same size as the objective array or matrix.

E.g. A(A>5) or B(A<3) but not data(A<10).

This property is useful to easily create filters for our data:

data(data>50 & data<500)

clc to clean the Command window

Basic calculations

With numbers: mass*avogadro

With arrays and matrices: odds+pairs but odds.*pairs

Note the difference between B/A and B./A:

.*”, “./” and “.^” are operators used to perform calculations element by element (array operations). Avoid using “*”, “/” and “^” on matrices unless you really want to do matrix operations following the rules of linear algebra.

Call parts of another variable: You can access the number in the second row and third column with A(2,3), the second row with B(2,:) or the first column with A(:,1). MATLAB and Octave always follow the order (row,column) in 2D matrices.

Random numbers

Try hist(normrnd(11000,2000,1,5000)) and hist(rand(1,5000)) to plot the histograms corresponding to these random distributions.


Air pressure

Let’s define a function that calculates the pressure at a certain altitude:

    pressure = @(altitude)1013.25*...
     % standard atmosphere pressure (Lide, 1999)

Note that we can use three dots (...) to avoid long lines.

Then define x values between 0 (sea level) and 8848 m (Everest) every 100 m:


And alculate their corresponding pressures:


Simple plots

Try the following plots:


Create a figure and plot several things in it:

    figure % open a new figure
    hold on % do not clear when plotting different things
    text(200,pressure(200),'East Kilbride')
    title('My first plot with labels')

Make y axis logarithmic: set(gca, ’YScale’, ’log’) (gca means “Get current axes”) You can export your plots using the menu File > Save As in the figure window. Exporting your plots as .eps or .pdf will allow you to edit them with vector graphic editors like Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape.



A script is a text file with a list of orders. In your current directory, create radiocarbondating.m. Open it with the editor and write the following orders:

    %% This is a script that calculates radiocarbon ages and errors
    %% By Me, 2019

    %% Start with some cleaning
    clear % this removes any previous parameter in the workspace
    clc % this clears the command window

    %% Define the formula that calculates the age from concentrations    

    %% This is the data we have
    oldc=[567 1100 20 1252];
    erroroldc=[6 20 5 50];

    %% Select the data we want to work with

    %% Create 1000 random data based on the normal dristributions

    %% Calculate the ages of the distributions

    %% Plot the age distribution
    hold on
    title(['Sample ' num2str(n)])

    %% Calculate the mean and the average

Now you can change the value of n to get the results of other data.

Note that we can make composed strings using brackets [] and the function num2str(n) to convert numbers into strings.

Also note that we can use ... to avoid very long lines.



We often need to run a block of code several times. For example, in our program radiocarbondating.m we could copy and paste the script 4 times changing n=1 by n=2, n=3 and n=4 to get all our ages calculated. However, we avoid repeating code by writing a loop statement that executes the code multiple times.

In radiocarbondating.m, we can substitute “n=1" by “for n=[1,2,3,4]" and write “end" at the end of the script to perform the calculations and plotting for the four samples.

The basic form of a loop in Matlab is:

for Parameter=List
% My repeating code

Error bars

Create a new script called plot-with-error-bars.m that use a loop to plot error bars of the individual concentrations:

    %% This is a script that plots data with error bars
    %% By Me, 2019

    %% Start with some cleaning
    clear % this removes any previous parameter in the workspace
    clc % this clears the command window
    close all hidden % close any pre vious figure

    %% This is the data we have
    data=[567 1100 20 1252 326 625];
    errors=[6 20 5 50 32 100];

    %% Figure
    hold on
    for n=1:length(data) % start a loop
      plot(n,data(n),'.b')  % Plot data
      x=[n,n]; % x positions of the limits of the error bar line
      y=[data(n)-errors(n),data(n)+errors(n)]; % y positions
      plot(x,y,'-b') % plot the error bar
    end % end of the loop

Another way of creating a loop is using the statement* while:

while n<10
n=n+1 % add 1 to the value of n

Conditional statements

if - end

Conditional statements allow us to select at run time which block of code to execute. The simplest conditional statement is if, closed with end:

n=round(rand*100); % random number between 0 and 100
                   % rounded to the nearest integer
if n/2==round(n/2)
  string=[num2str(n) ' is pair']

if - elseif - else - end

We can define alternatives using if, elseif, else and end:

if n/2==round(n/2)
  string=[num2str(n) ' is pair'];
elseif isprime(n)
  string=[num2str(n) ' is odd and prime'];
  string=[num2str(n) ' is odd, but not prime'];
disp(string) % disp shows the string in the command window

You can also define conditional statements using switch (switch, case, otherwise and end). Find yourself how to use the switch statement by typing help switch in the command window!



A function is a script that works like a “black box". You only see the final output in the workspace, not all the parameters defined in the function. When writing a function, or converting a script into a function, we have to start the file with

function OUTPUTS = function_name(INPUTS)

and write


at the end of the file.

14C age function

Create a file called C14agefunction.m and copy:

function [age,errorage]=C14agefunction(oldc,erroroldc,modernc,errormodernc)

Note that the function name has to be the same as the file name. Otherwise you will get an error when running it.

Save the file, and then execute the following in the command window:



Built-in functions

Built-in functions

MATLAB and Octave come with a large number of built-in functions (e.g. factorial, sin, sum, diff, max, magic, pi, median, chi2pdf, interp1, contour, and many more).

You can learn how to use these functions using help (e.g. help interp1), selecting the name of the function and pressing in MATLAB.

Also, you can discover more functions in the Internet. Just search for the operation you want to do, including “Matlab" or “Octave" in your search.

We can even see how some of these built-in functions are made with edit. Try edit magic to see the code of the function that generates magic squares!

Toolboxes and packages

There are some advances functions, like the ones used to work with maps, that are not included in the basic package of MATLAB and Octave. These “special packages" are called “toolboxes" in MATLAB and just “packages" in Octave.

Toolboxes are installed using the MATLAB installer and they are automatically loaded when you start MATLAB.

Octave packages can be installed using pkg install and the name of the file where the package is. Before we start using an Octave package, we have to load it with pkg load package_name.

As one of the objectives of this course is learning to write code we can share, most of the built-in functions that we are using in this course are included in the basic versions of MATLAB and Octave. If a toolbox or package is required, it will be clearly stated.


Snow and glacier modelling

A glacier is a persistent body of dense ice that is constantly moving under its own weight. (Wikipedia: Glacier)


  Consider the following climate simplifications:

      ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
       Jan   Feb   Mar   Apr   May   Jun   Jul   Aug   Sep   Oct   Nov   Dec
        4     5     7     8    12    14    16    16    13    10     7     5
      ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
      ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
       Jan   Feb   Mar   Apr   May   Jun   Jul   Aug   Sep   Oct   Nov   Dec
       175   125   150   100   75    100   100   125   125   175   175   175
      ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----

  Consider the following snow/ice behaviour (huge simplifications):

Mass balance:

  1. Write a function that calculate the monthly snow mass balance (snow accumulation-snow melting). Remember that the melting function should not create snow!

  2. Write a function that calculate the snow accumulated monthly. Remember that (1) we can have snow inherited from the previous month, and (2) the thickness of the snow mantle cannot be negative!

  3. Write a piece of code that calculates the annual mass balance. Introduce the possibility of emulate past and future climate conditions by changing the temperature and precipitation uniformly (ΔT and ΔP).

The output of the monthly functions should be an array of 12 numbers when the input is one altitude, or a matrix when the input is a “column” of altitude values.

  Snow accumulation:

  1. Placing a ski resort: what is the lowest altitude with 3 or more months of snow?

  2. According to these data, where could we find a glacier in Scotland today? Note: the highest peak in Scotland is Ben Nevis, 1345 m above sea level.

  The Glenshee ski area is located between 650 and 1050 m of altitude. What impact would these scenarios have on the business by 2100?


  Glacier modeling exercises:

  1. Write a piece of code that emulate the annual snow/ice mass flow. Tip: calculate how much the snow/ice moves vertically in a year and discretize the altitude reference accordingly, so the snow packed during the previous year will move one position per year.

  2. Write a script that runs the previous code until the thickness of the snow/ice is stable.

  3. According to this model, where should the glacial fronts have been during the Younger Dryas (ΔT=-4ºC)? and during last glaciation (ΔT=-6ºC)?

  Produce graphical outputs like these: