Extending NestedSamplers.jl

This blog post describes the work done in Google Summer of Code 2020 for the Polychord Nested Sampling Algorithm Building and Integration with Turing in Julia.



Bayesian inference methods are mainly used for parameter estimation and model comparison. Parameter estimation is generally performed using Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) methods, such as the Metropolis–Hastings (MH) algorithm and its variants. Whereas, for performing model comparison, the evidence (a high-dimensional integration of the likelihood over the prior density) is computed. The issue with using MH methods is that they cannot compute this on a usable time-scale which further hinders the use of Bayesian model comparison. As such, a contemporary methodology for computing evidence and posteriors simultaneously is provided by nested sampling (Skilling, 2004 and 2006).

The nested sampling algorithm can be used to estimate the evidence integral. The basic algorithm is stated here:

Step 1. Draw inline_formula not implemented live points uniformly from the prior.

Step 2. At iteration inline_formula not implemented, replace the point with the lowest likelihood inline_formula not implemented by a new live point drawn (as in Step 1) with the constraint that its likelihood inline_formula not implemented.

Step 3. Estimate the fraction of the prior inline_formula not implemented enclosed by the iso-likelihood contour inline_formula not implemented. It is the lowest volume of inline_formula not implemented volumes drawn uniformly from inline_formula not implemented.

Step 4. Calculate the evidence by quadrature, inline_formula not implemented.

Step 5. inline_formula not implemented satisfies, inline_formula not implemented, inline_formula not implemented, and inline_formula not implemented.

Step 6. Using Step 4 and Step 5, the mean and variance of the random variable inline_formula not implemented can be found.

Step 7. The posterior mass contained within the live points is estimated as, inline_formula not implemented.

Step 8. Convergence is reached when inline_formula not implemented is some small fraction of inline_formula not implemented.

Step 9. The dead points may be used to construct a set of posterior samples for use in parameter estimation.

The difficult step in nested sampling is sampling from the prior subject to the hard likelihood constraint inline_formula not implemented. Numerous variants of nested sampling have been constructed to deal with the likelihood constraint. The prior may be sampled using inverse transform sampling, so that sampling occurs in a unit hypercube. How one samples in this space under the hard likelihood constraint is where variations of the algorithm differ.

The NestedSamplers.jl Julia package is now enabled to have the random staggering (v0.4.0), slicing and random slicing (v0.5.0) algorithms to propose new live points within a bounding volume in unit space. Uniform and random walk algorithms were released in v0.3.0 of NestedSamplers.jl. Depending on the number of parameters to fit, the proposal algorithm is selected (this not a rule of thumb, rather it is used to acheive optimal algorithm performance). The number of parameters to fit defines the dimensionality of the prior volume used in evidence sampling. These parameters are denoted by ndims . The conditional statement that helps select amongst the proposals is:

if proposal === :auto
  proposal = if ndims < 10
  elseif 10  ndims  20
Shift+Enter to run

Although the algorithms can be used for any dimensionality (the value of ndims), their performance will be best when they are selected according to the value of ndims as stated above. Random staggering, slicing and random slicing algorithms are discussed in the further sections.

Random Staggering

Random staggering can be used as an alternative to the random walk proposal when the number of parameters to fit lie in [10, 20] . However, it differs from the random walk proposal in that the step size here is exponentially adjusted to reach a target acceptance rate during each proposal, in addition to between proposals. In this algorithm, a new live point is proposed by random staggering away from an existing live point. The parameters for this proposal are:

  • ratio: the target acceptance ratio (must be in [1/walks, 1])

  • walks: the minimum number of steps to take (must be greater than 1)

  • scale: the proposal distribution scale, which will update between proposals (must be non-negative)

A mutable struct RStagger is constructed with default values ratio = 0.5, walks = 25, and scale = 1.0.

While the number of function calls used to generate the sample is less than the walks (default walks are 25) or the acceptance value is zero, a proposed point is obtained.

The position of the initial sample (or the existing live point) is transformed to the proposal distribution, for which the scale and the stagger values (default stagger = 1) are utilized. Whether this transformed value lies inside the unit-cube is verified using the unitcheck function. Checks are also applied on the scale factor to avoid over-shrinking and, on the walks to avoid getting stuck in inefficient random number generation.

A prior_transform function is applied to the sample which lies within the unit-cube. This function transforms the sample from a unit cube to the parameter space of interest according to the prior. The log-likelihood of this value is returned using the function loglike and stored in logl_prop . The log-likelihood logl_prop of the proposed point is compared with the log-likelihood bound logl_star and the log-likelihood of the final proposed point is stored in logl.

The stagger value is then adjusted to target an acceptance ratio.

ratio = accept / (accept + reject)
if ratio > prop.ratio
  stagger *= exp(1 / accept)
elseif ratio < prop.ratio
  stagger /= exp(1 / reject)
Shift+Enter to run

Finally the proposal scale is updated using the target acceptance ratio, similar to that in the random walk proposal.

function update_scale!(prop, accept, reject, n)
    ratio = accept / (accept + reject)
    norm = max(prop.ratio, 1 - prop.ratio) * n
    scale = prop.scale * exp((ratio - prop.ratio) / norm)
    prop.scale = min(scale, sqrt(n))
    return prop
Shift+Enter to run


When the number of parameters to fit are greater than 20, the slice proposal algorithm can be used. A new live point is proposed by a series of slices away from an existing live point. This is a standard Gibbs-like implementation where a single multivariate slice is a combination of univariate slices through each axis. The parameters for this proposal are:

  • slices: the minimum number of slices (must be greater than or equal to 1)

  • scale: the proposal distribution scale, which will update between proposals (must be non-negative)

A mutable struct Slice is constructed with default values slices = 5 and scale = 1.0.

A matrix is stored in axes which is used to propose new points. New positions for slices are proposed along the orthogonal basis defined by axes:

axes = Bounds.axes(bounds)
axes = prop.scale .* axes'
Shift+Enter to run

The axis order is shuffled and these shuffled indices are used to select axis for slice sampling:

idxs = shuffle!(rng, collect(Base.axes(axes, 1)))
for idx in idxs:
  axis = axes[idx, :]    # axis selection
  # sample_slice function here
Shift+Enter to run

The procedure for slice sampling is stored in the function sample_slice. To define a starting window, a left bound u_l and a right bound u_r is computed as:

u_l = @. u - r * axis  # left bound
u_r = u_l .+ axis # right bound
Shift+Enter to run

Here, u is the position of the final proposed point within the unit cube and r is the initial offset. Unitchecks are performed on both u_l and u_r, on passing which the prior_transform function is applied to transform them to the target parameter space, stored in v_l and v_r, respectively. The log-likelihood of these are stored in logl_l and logl_r, respectively. If these log-likelihoods exceed the log-likelihood bound logl_star, the values of u_l and u_r are modified as:

u_l .-= axis
u_r .+= axis
Shift+Enter to run

Then the same steps of unitchecks, prior transforms and log-likelihood computations are repeated as earlier.

The values of u_l and u_r are used to compute a sample within limits. If the sample is not valid, the limits are shrunk until the logl_star bound is hit. The window size is defined as:

window_init = norm(u_r - u_l)
Shift+Enter to run

The difference in u_r and u_l is stored in u_hat and a new position is proposed as:

u_prop = @. u_l + r * u_hat
Shift+Enter to run

This is passed through the unitchecks, prior transformations and log-likelihood computations and if the log-likelihood boundary condition is met then then move is made to the new position. Otherwise, the new point is subjected to further checks. A variable s is calculated to check the signs as:

s = dot(u_prop - u, u_hat)
Shift+Enter to run

Checking the sign of s essentially means to check if the new point is to the left or right of the original point along the proposal axis and update the bounds accordingly:

if s < 0    # left
  u_l = u_prop
elseif s > 0    # right
  u_r = u_prop
  error("Slice sampler has failed to find a valid point.")
Shift+Enter to run

Finally the proposal scale is updated based on the relative size of the slices compared to the initial guess.

prop.scale = prop.scale * nexpand / (2.0 * ncontract)
Shift+Enter to run

Random Slicing

Random slicing can be used as an alternative to the slicing algorithm. The Polychord nested sampling algorithm is roughly equivalent to this algorithm. Here, a new live point is proposed by a series of random slices away from an existing live point. This is a standard random implementation where each slice is along a random direction based on the provided axes. The parameters for this proposal are:

  • slices: the minimum number of slices (must be greater than or equal to 1)

  • scale: the proposal distribution scale, which will update between proposals (must be non-negative)

A mutable struct RSlice is constructed with default values slices = 5 and scale = 1.0.

The algorithm for random slicing is similar to slicing except that a direction drhat is proposed on the unit n-sphere, which is used to tranform and scale into the parameter space. Thus, using drhat, axis in this case is computed as:

drhat = randn(rng, n)
drhat /= norm(drhat)
axis = prop.scale .* (Bounds.axes(bounds) * drhat)
Shift+Enter to run

The remaining algoritm is similar to the slicing algorithm.

Illustrations to use NestedSamplers.jl are provided in this blog.

Further work

Including another proposal for Hamiltonian slice sampling in NestedSamplers.jl. In Hamiltonian slice sampling a new live point is proposed by using a series of random trajectories away from an existing live point. Each trajectory is based on the provided axes and samples are determined by moving forwards or backwards in time until the trajectory hits an edge and approximately reflecting off the boundaries. After a series of reflections is established, a new live point is proposed by slice sampling across the entire path. As another task, NestedSamplers.jl will be integrated with Turing.jl.


  1. https://github.com/joshspeagle/dynesty

  2. Handley, W. J., Hobson, M. P., & Lasenby, A. N. (2015a). PolyChord: nested sampling for cosmology. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters, 450(1), L61-L65.

  3. Miles Lucas, Saranjeet Kaur, Hong Ge, & Cameron Pfiffer. (2020, July 22). TuringLang/NestedSamplers.jl: v0.5.0 (Version v0.5.0). Zenodo. http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3955218

  4. Skilling, J. (2004). Nested sampling. In AIP Conference Proceedings (Vol. 735, No. 1, pp. 395-405). American Institute of Physics.

  5. Skilling, J. (2006). Nested sampling for general Bayesian computation. Bayesian analysis, 1(4), 833-859

  6. Speagle, J. S. (2020). dynesty: A dynamic nested sampling package for estimating Bayesian posteriors and evidences. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society493(3), 3132-3158.

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