What is Polymorphism? - Explaining Polymorphism to a Five Year Old

What is Polymorphism? - Explaining Polymorphism to a Five Year Old

In class-oriented languages, a class is simply an organized code which acts as a template or blueprint for creating objects. A parent class can also be ‘copied’ to create a child class. You can think of the parent (super) and child (sub) classes in the same way you would think of the relationship between a real-life parent and its child. Additionally, you could see it as the relationship between more abstract concepts or objects with more specializaed ones, like a superset and subset.

When a child is born, the characteristics of the parent are copied into the child. In other words, the child inherits behaviours from the parent. This is known as class inheritance in class-oriented languages. Let’s see some code illustrations:


// Abstract Class: An Aircraft
class Aircraft {
  constructor(wings = 2, engines = 2, wheels = 3) {
    this.wings = wings;
    this.engines = engines;
    this.wheels = wheels
  }
  // Start the engine
  start() {
    console.log(`turning on my ${this.engines} engines!`);
  }
  // Stand 
  stand() {
    console.log(`standing on my ${this.wheels} tires!`);
  }

  // Run on the tracks
  run() {
    console.log(`moving down the runway on my ${this.wheels} tires!`);
  }

// Fly in the sky
 fly() {
    console.log(`soaring the sky on my ${this.wings} wings!`);
   }
}

// A Child Class: A Helicopter
class Helicopter extends Aircraft {
  constructor(engines, wheels, propellers) {
    super(engines, wheels); // call the super class constructor and pass in the engines and wheels parameter
    this.propellers = propellers;
  }

  propel() {
    console.log(`spinning my ${this.propellers} propellers!`);
  }

  lift() {
    this.stand();
    this.start();
    this.propel();
    console.log('slowly climbing up thanks to my spinning propellers!');
  }
}

// Another Child Class: An Aeroplane
class Aeroplane extends Aircraft {
  constructor(wings, engines, wheels, passengers) {
    super(engines, wheels); // call the super class constructor and pass in the name parameter
    this.passengers = passengers;
  },
  start() {
    console.log(`turning on my ${this.engines} balanced engines!`);
  },

  takeOff() {
    this.stand();
    this.start();
    this.run();
    this.fly();
    console.log(`all of the ${this.passengers} passengers are screaming in delight!`);
  }
}

We define the Aircraft class to assume two wings, two engines, three wheels, a way to start it's engine, stand, run and also a way to fly. But in real-life cases you wouldn’t ever manufacture just a generic “aircraft,” so it’s really just an abstract concept at this point. Hence, then we define two specific kinds of aircrafts: a helicopter and an aeroplane.

They each inherit some of the general characteristics of an aircraft, but then each of them tailor the characteristics appropriately for themselves. A helicopter needs two propellers and has to propel while taking off, and a aeroplane is assumed to need three engines because it’s actually conveying lots of passengers.

Polymorphism implies the existence of a property or method across two or more classes in various levels of the inheritance chain. It involves the referencing of a property or method from classes higher on the inheritance hierarchy.

In most class-oriented languages, including ES6 class, this is achieved by calling the super() keyword along with the name of the property of method you want to access, from any method in the child class. When you do this, the JavaScript engine looks one step up into a parent class for that method.

Now, let us consider one interesting implication of polymorphism in our class examples. The start() method was defined in both the Helicopter class and the Aeroplane class. When you define a method of same name in both parent class and child class, then you are said to have overridden that of the parent class. Now if you observed well, you would notice that the takeoff() method made a reference to the start() which, as I said, exists in both parent and child. Which version of start() do you think the JavaScript engine will use? Is it the one in Aircraft or the one in Aeroplane

This brings us to one vital thing to always keep in mind about polymorphism:

  • When you make a reference to any property or method from a subclass, the engine first checks to see if that method already exists in the current subsclass. If it exists, the engine uses that method. If it doesn’t exist, the engine “looks up” the next (parent) class for it, and that goes on.

Now, to answer the question, the JavaScript engine will use the Aeroplanes version of start(), which will resolve to 3 engines since a passenger plane has 3:

const plane = new Aeroplane(2, 3, 3, 117)
console.log(plane.takeOff()) 

/* turning on my 3 balanced engines!
   Standing on my 3 wheels
   Moving down the track on my 3 tires 
   Soaring the sky on my 2 wings
   all the 117 passengers are screaming in delight */

If we had instantiated the generic Aircraft class instead, then its version of start() would have been called instead:

const aircraft = new Aircraft() // Nothing passed  because we had set default parameters

console.log(aircraft.start())
// turning on my two engines!

True to its name, polymorphism allows you define and use properties and methods in many forms. In our case, The start() method has two forms, and the form which gets used depends on the class which gets instantiated.

Polymorphism is a very useful feature of Object oriented programming. You can create one single interface which you can reuse in multiple subclasses. You can save yourself time and write far less code.

When it comes to polymorphism and inheritance in JavaScript, there is an important behaviour to understand: the [[Prototype]] Mechanism. This is how the engine traverses upwards looking for the existence of a property or method on the superclasses, up until it reaches the prototype object.

What is the [[Prototype]] mechanism? We’ll leave that for our next episode of the Explain like I’m 5 series.

P/S: If you like articles like this follow this blog to never miss an update. If you are learning JavaScript, you’ll definitely want to check out my JavaScript Notes.

 
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