Amherst is an exclusively undergraduate four-year institution and enrolled 1,817 students in the fall of 2012.
Students choose courses from 35 major programs in an unusually open curriculum. Amherst is ranked as the second best liberal arts college in the country by U.S. News & World Report, and ranked thirteenth out of all U.S. colleges and universities by Forbes.
Founded in 1821 as an attempt to relocate Williams College by its President, Zephaniah Swift Moore, Amherst is the third oldest institution of higher education in Massachusetts. Amherst remained a men’s college until becoming coeducational in 1975.
Amherst has historically had close relationships and rivalries with Williams College and Wesleyan University which form the Little Three colleges. It is also a member of the Five College Consortium.
Introducing concept to undergrads could lead to more transparency in science
The ability to duplicate an experiment and its results is a central tenet of the scientific method, but recent research has shown an alarming number of peer-reviewed papers are irreproducible.
A team of math and statistics professors has proposed a way to address one root of that problem by teaching reproducibility to aspiring scientists, using software that makes the concept feel logical rather than cumbersome.
Researchers from Smith College, Duke University and Amherst College looked at how introductory statistics students responded to a curriculum modified to stress reproducibility. Their work is detailed in a paper published Feb. 25 in the journal Technological Innovations in Statistics Education.
In 2013, on the heels of several retraction scandals and studies showing reproducibility rates as low as 10 percent for peer-reviewed articles, the prominent scientific journal Nature dedicated a special issue to the concerns over irreproducibility.
Nature’s editors announced measures to address the problem in its own pages, and encouraged the science community and funders to direct their attention to better training of young scientists.
“Too few biologists receive adequate training in statistics and other quantitative aspects of their subject,” the editors wrote. “Mentoring of young scientists on matters of rigour and transparency is inconsistent at best.”
The authors of the present study thus looked to their own classrooms for ways to incorporate the idea of reproducibility.
“Reproducing a scientific study usually has two components: reproducing the experiment, and reproducing the analysis,” said Ben Baumer, visiting assistant professor of math and statistics at Smith College. “As statistics instructors, we wanted to emphasize the latter to our students.”
The grade school maxim to “show your work” doesn’t hold in the average introductory statistics class, said Mine Cetinkaya-Rundel, assistant professor of the practice in the Duke statistics department. In a typical workflow, a college-level statistics student will perform data analysis in one software package, but transfer the results into something better suited to presentation, like Microsoft Word or Microsoft PowerPoint.
Though standard, this workflow divorces the raw data and analysis from the final results, making it difficult for students to retrace their steps. The process can give rise to errors, and in many cases, the authors write, “the copy-and-paste paradigm enables, and even encourages, selective reporting.”
“Usually, a data analysis report, even a published paper, isn’t going to include the code,” Cetinkaya-Rundel said. “But at the intro level, where this is the first time students are exposed to this workflow, it helps to keep intact both the final results and the code used to generate them.”
Enter R Markdown, a statistical package that integrates seamlessly with the programming language R. The team chose R Markdown for its ease of use — students wouldn’t have to learn a new computer syntax — and because it combines the raw data, computing and written analysis into one HTML document. The researchers hoped a single HTML file would give students a start-to-finish understanding of assignments, as well as make studying and grading easier.
The study introduced R Markdown to 417 introductory statistics students (272 from Duke University, 145 from Smith College) during the 2012-2013 school year. Instructors emphasized the lesson of reproducibility throughout each course and surveyed 70 students about their experience using R Markdown for homework assignments.
Amherst College Physicists Create Synthetic Magnetic Particle
Nearly 85 years after pioneering theoretical physicist Paul Dirac predicted the possibility of their existence, an international collaboration led by Amherst College Physics Professor David S. Hall ’91 and Aalto University (Finland) Academy Research Fellow Mikko Möttönen has created, identified and photographed synthetic magnetic monopoles in Hall’s laboratory on the Amherst campus. The groundbreaking accomplishment paves the way for the detection of the particles in nature, which would be a revolutionary development comparable to the discovery of the electron.
A paper about this work co-authored by Hall, Möttönen, Amherst postdoctoral research associate Michael Ray, Saugat Kandel ’12 and Finnish graduate student Emmi Ruokokski was published today in the journal Nature.
“The creation of a synthetic magnetic monopole should provide us with unprecedented insight into aspects of the natural magnetic monopole—if indeed it exists,” said Hall, explaining the implications of his work.
Ray, the paper’s lead author and first to sight the monopoles in the laboratory, agreed, noting: “This is an incredible discovery. To be able to confirm the work of one of the most famous physicists is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I am proud and honored to have been part of this great collaborative effort.”
Ordinarily, magnetic poles come in pairs: they have both a north pole and a south pole. As the name suggests, however, a magnetic monopole is a magnetic particle possessing only a single, isolated pole—a north pole without a south pole, or vice versa. In 1931, Dirac published a paper that explored the nature of these monopoles in the context of quantum mechanics. Despite extensive experimental searches since then, in everything from lunar samples—moon rock—to ancient fossilized minerals, no observation of a naturally-occurring magnetic monopole has yet been confirmed.
Hall’s team adopted an innovative approach to investigating Dirac’s theory, creating and identifying synthetic magnetic monopoles in an artificial magnetic field generated by a Bose-Einstein condensate, an extremely cold atomic gas tens of billionths of a degree warmer than absolute zero. The team relied upon theoretical work published by Möttönen and his student Ville Pietilä that suggested a particular sequence of changing external magnetic fields could lead to the creation of the synthetic monopole. Their experiments subsequently took place in the atomic refrigerator built by Hall and his students in his basement laboratory in the Merrill Science Center.
After resolving many technical challenges, the team was rewarded with photographs that confirmed the monopoles’ presence at the ends of tiny quantum whirlpools within the ultracold gas. The result proves experimentally that Dirac’s envisioned structures do exist in nature, explained Hall, even if the naturally occurring magnetic monopoles remain at large.