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When I use the shebang #!/usr/bin/env python to run a script, how does the system know which python to use? if I look for a python bin path in the environment variables I find nothing.

env | grep -i python
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3  
oh i think i figured it out- it just searches your $PATH for 'python' –  tMC May 6 '11 at 13:50
    
I've wondered about that too. And why /usr/bin/env? as opposed to /bin/env or env, if it is just getting a list of paths from env? –  Faheem Mitha May 6 '11 at 15:50
    
Just 'env' won't work because it has to be full path. The 'env' program is usually found in /user/bin/env. On some distros it may also be found as /bin/env, but it's safer to go with /usr/bin/env. –  rettops May 7 '11 at 17:21

3 Answers 3

up vote 24 down vote accepted

The shebang expects a full path to the interpreter to use so the following syntax would be incorrect:

#!python

Setting a full path like this would work:

#!/usr/local/bin/python

but would be non portable as python might be installed in /bin or /opt/python/bin or wherever location.

Using env

#!/usr/bin/env python

is a method allowing a portable way to specify to the OS a full path equivalent to the actual one where python is first located in the PATH.

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Right, so run:

env | grep PATH

Your $PATH is a list of directories. Unix will go through that list of directories, in order, until it finds "python".

You can see which directory it finds with the 'which' command:

which python
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The shebang line (from “sharp bang”, i.e. #!) is processed by the kernel. The kernel doesn't want to know about environment variables such as PATH. So the name on the shebang line must be an absolute path to an executable. You can also specify an additional argument to pass to that executable before the script name (with system-dependent restrictions I won't go into here). For example, for a Python script, you can specify

#!/usr/bin/python

on the first line, and when you execute the script, the kernel will in fact execute /usr/bin/python /path/to/script. But that's not convenient: you need to specify the full path of the command. What if you have python in /usr/bin on some machines and /usr/local/bin on others? Or you want to set your PATH to /home/joe/opt/python-2.5/bin so as to use a specific version of Python? Since the kernel won't do the PATH lookup for you, the idea is to make the kernel run a command that in turns looks up the desired interpreter in the PATH:

#!/fixed/path/to/path-lookup-command python

That path-lookup-command must take the name of an executable as an argument and look it up in PATH and execute it: the kernel will run /fixed/path/to/path-lookup-command python /path/to/script. As it happens, the env command does just that. Its main purpose is to run a command with a different environment, but since it looks up the command name in $PATH, it's perfect for our purpose here.

Although this is not officially guaranteed, historic Unix systems provided env in /usr/bin, and modern systems have kept that location precisely because of the widespread use of #!/usr/bin/env. So, in practice, the way to specify that a script must be executed by the user's favorite Python interpreter is

#!/usr/bin/env python
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2  
which one is preferred between env and which? since which will also get the most eligible executable from my PATH environment. –  Nikhil Mulley Jan 21 '12 at 19:22
    
@NikhilMulley which finds the executable and prints its path. env finds the program specified by the first argument and executes it, passing it the remaining arguments. –  Kevin Feb 2 '12 at 4:54
    
so is it that env is an eval version of which essentially. –  Nikhil Mulley Feb 2 '12 at 5:26

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