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Lifetimes in Rust

If you recall, in the Ownership section of this course, a value in Rust is only as valid as its scope. Once it is out of scope, it is out of memory and disregarded. This concept is called a lifetime. Every reference in Rust has a lifetime, although they are mostly inferred.

When to Declare Explicit Lifetimes

Lifetimes are also generic, and are used to validate references. In essence, the lifetime is defined by the scope in which a particular reference is deemed valid. In other words, it uses the borrow checker to ensure that dangling pointers don't occur.

Borrows are as valid as the source:

fn main() { // Lifetime "A", or 'a.
let y;
{ // Lifetime "B", or 'b.
let x = 10;
y = &x;
// y here would be "dangling", as x is no longer "living".

The compiler tells the entire story of why this cannot work:

Compiling playground v0.0.1 (/playground)
error[E0597]: `x` does not live long enough
--> src/
5 | y = &x;
| ^^ borrowed value does not live long enough
6 | }
| - `x` dropped here while still borrowed
7 | // y here would be "dangling", as x is no longer "living".
8 | println!("{y}");
| - borrow later used here

Notice here that we have not explicitly defined lifetimes - as they are implicitly done for us.

Lifetime Annotations

Lifetime annotations, as mentioned, are generics. They follow the convention of an apostrophe, ', followed by the letter of going from a onwards.

Annotating Functions

To annotate a function with an explicit lifetime, use 'a like any other generic. 'a essentially means as long as the function is still alive:

fn bad_lifetime<'a>() -> &'a i32 {
let _x: i32 = 19;
// ERROR: `_x` does not live long enough; it gets dropped at the end of the function!
let y: &'a i32 = &_x;

However, as the function name suggests - this does not work, as _x does not live long enough and is deallocated from memory. y then points to that deallocated memory, which is a prime example of a dangling pointer. To fix this, we must ensure that _x is a reference that has the same lifetime as y as well as the function itself.

fn fixed_lifetime<'a>() -> &'a i32 {
let _x: &'a i32 = &19;

Static Lifetimes

A unique lifetime is called 'static, which explicitly defines a reference as something that can live for the entirety of the program. A prime example of a 'static lifetime is &'static str, or string literals, as they are stored in the program's binary, making them always available.

Try it yourself!

What's happening here?

Lifetimes prevent dangling pointers via the Rust borrow checker. In the above example, a fixed lifetime is defined. This lifetime is valid because the lifetime, labeled 'a, on _x matches that of the function signature <'a>.