Professor Amanda Folsom Describes One of the Most Beautiful Equations in Mathematics

Scientific American – Folsom, Amherst’s Bicentennial Professor of Mathematics and associate chair of the math department, is one of several mathematicians recently asked to highlight “the most dazzling, thought-provoking and compelling equations they know.” She discusses the equation, developed 87 years ago, for the partition function p(n).

“For example, there are five partitions of n = 4 (4, 3 + 1, 2 + 2, 2 + 1 + 1, 1 + 1 + 1 + 1), so the partition function p(n) evaluated at = 4 is 5 (p(4) = 5),” Folsom says, recalling how she talked about the equation with a young child. “This important and seemingly basic function having to do with adding and counting is beautifully and perhaps unexpectedly complex.”

“The right-hand side of this equation is an exact formula for p(n) thanks to the 1937 work of Hans Rademacher, who extended related earlier work of G.H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan,” Folsom continues, noting “the mathematical legacy, further research and connections to other areas that persist today, now close to a century later.”

Kimberlyn Leary ’82 Interviews President Michael A. Elliott ’92 About the Approach to Inclusive Institutional Change

Evidence in Action Podcast – Leary, a former Amherst trustee and current executive vice president of the Urban Institute, speaks with “a fellow Mammoth” about his experiences both as a student and as president of the College. Their conversation also explores “key principles of the liberal arts,” the benefits and challenges of a diverse learning environment, and the role of evidence in decision making.

“[A] lot of attention is paid to what goes on at a college campus as a way of our larger society … working out its set of conflicts and anxieties,” Elliott observes. Liberal arts colleges “like to work on complex matters, we like to think about ambiguity, we like to think about context, and to have room for lots of nuanced discussion…. But the current media and social media environment really cuts against that.”

When Leary asks him about using evidence in his work as a scholar of public history, Elliott describes himself as “a document nerd”: “For instance, I’ve been reading recently some of the archives that we have about debates among Amherst faculty around the curriculum …. I love evidence that records debate and dialogue, and it helps understand why a decision was made, including the paths not taken, and that’s something that I think carries over from my scholarly to my administrative [work].”

How the Soon-to-Reopen Folger Shakespeare Library Came to Be

Smithsonian Magazine – As the newly renovated and expanded library in Washington, D.C., prepares to reopen on June 21, an article describes how Henry Clay Folger, Amherst class of 1879, and his wife, Emily Jordan Folger, acquired the collection of Shakespeare artifacts that started it all.

“Future titan of industry Henry Clay Folger Jr. lived the first part of his life in Dickensian poverty,” write Andrea Mays and James L. Swanson. “[H]e used essay contests to pay for his education at Amherst College …. And he was a deep admirer of William Shakespeare: He recalled delight in reading the Bard’s plays and poems ‘far into the night’ while still at Amherst.”

Folger went on to become a protégé of John D. Rockefeller and then president of Standard Oil Co. of New York. Along the way, he and Emily began buying Shakespeareana, eventually amassing the largest such collection in the world. It was dedicated as the Folger Memorial Shakespeare Library in 1932, two years after Folger’s death. Today the library is administered by a board of governors under the auspices of Amherst College.

The article includes photos of Henry and Emily Folger and of interior parts of the library, as well as details about what visitors can expect to see when it reopens—perhaps most notably, 82 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

Artist Spotlight: Taylor Thomas ’17

SCVTV – “The goal of my art is that anyone who sees it feels seen and feels like they are important,” says Thomas, an MFA student at CalArts, in a video about her work in portraiture. Her exhibit Woven Roots is on view at the Canyon Country Community Center in Santa Clarita, Calif., until June 12.

“She graduated magna cum laude with Distinction from Amherst College in 2017 where she double majored in Sociology and Film & Media Studies,” says the accompanying article. Then “Thomas spent 6 years developing feature films at Netflix and The Walt Disney Company. However, her true interests led her to change careers and create the representation that she craved in the visual arts.”

Thomas, whose grandparents were artists, draws from her own heritage in her work, “blending original photos with urban materials to transcend traditional portraiture” and inviting audiences “to engage with the evolving narratives of Blackness in America.”

Writer Aatish Taseer ’03 on Why All Artists Remain Perpetual Beginners

The New York Times Style Magazine – “In the careers of certain artists, those who make big, varied bodies of work in which different strands of their experience are subsumed, the business of beginning, and beginning again, never ceases,” Taseer observes, citing examples from among his artistic and literary heroes and friends.

Taseer—a British-American author, journalist and translator raised in New Delhi—begins by describing a self-portrait painted by a friend at Amherst College, identified only as Zack. Though Zack was amazingly talented, Taseer writes, he didn’t stick with art as a career, moving on instead to jobs in different fields. 

“Many with fewer gifts who are yet more steadfast go on to have brilliant careers as artists,” he notes. “There’s an undeniable mystery in why some among us become artists, but there’s a greater mystery to me still in those who survive the vicissitudes of creative life….” The essay considers these vicissitudes and perpetual new beginnings in the lives of such creators as writer Rebecca West, painter Salman Toor and musician Anoushka Shankar, who “regards her fourth album as her first.”

Americans Who Want to Protect Democracy Need to Stand Up for Public Libraries, Says Professor Austin Sarat

The Hill – “Threats to libraries are real and growing, and action is urgently needed,” writes Sarat, Amherst’s William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science. “The fate of democracy and the fate of public libraries are inexorably linked.”

In this edition of his frequent opinion column for The Hill, Sarat outlines the early history of libraries in the United States. These institutions, he notes, “knit communities together by serving everyone and providing essential services for all. They are community crossroads where the old and the young, the rich and the economically disadvantaged, and newcomers to this country and long-time residents mix as equals.”

The professor cites news stories and statistics on the recent dramatic increase in attempts to ban books from public and school libraries. “States like Florida and Texas have passed laws to regulate, restrict or censor the material that libraries can offer their patrons,” he writes, but “states like California, Connecticut and New Jersey are now considering legislation to protect libraries and librarians.” He quotes and explains the proposed protective laws in these states, saying, “Other states need to follow their lead.”

Professor Krupa Shandilya on How Indian Protesters Pull from Poetic Tradition to Resist Modi’s Hindu Nationalism

The Conversation – Shandilya, an associate professor of sexuality, women’s and gender studies, writes about the use of poetry in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Recently implemented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the CAA discriminates against India’s Muslim population.

“Four years ago, university campuses and Muslim neighborhoods … were packed with people who, day after day, chanted slogans, belted out songs and recited poetry,” Shandilya writes, describing the response to the CAA’s passage. “Poetry seemed to unsettle the government the most.” Similar protests (though “more muted” because of increased police and paramilitary presence) have been happening since the law went into effect in March 2024.

Shandilya, who is at work on a book titled Urdu Poetry and Politics in Contemporary India, cites examples of poets—including Hussain Haidry and Faiz Ahmed Faiz—whose verses have sent resonant messages about the toppling of tyranny. She also explains the historical context and likely effects of the CAA: it “would effectively render millions of India’s Muslims, lower castes and the poor ineligible for government benefits. They would be unable to vote and would face a constant threat of displacement from the country of their birth.”

These Twin Brothers Are Identical, But Their Autism Isn’t

National Public Radio – A segment in NPR’s “Science of Siblings” series focuses on the differences and common bonds between Sam Fetters ’26 and his twin, John. Cases like theirs help shed light on the genetic and environmental factors at play in autism.

The Fetters twins displayed similar signs of autism as toddlers, so their mother enrolled them in early-intervention preschool. Sam flourished academically and linguistically, but John needed more intensive interventions. Starting at age 5, they participated in a scientific study on identical twins on the spectrum. Today, at 19, “Sam is a sophomore at Amherst College who plans to double major in history and political science. In his free time, he runs marathons,” writes Jon Hamilton, while “John attends a special school, struggles to form sentences, and likes to watch Teletubbies and Sesame Street.”

The brothers are empathetic and supportive to one another, with Sam often “translating” for John when he has difficulty communicating. “We are identical twins in almost every other way,” Sam says: “laugh in the same way, cry in the same way, see the day in the same way, love the same way.” 

Richard Szlosek ’61 Reports on the Little-Known History of the Bosox at Amherst

Daily Hampshire Gazette – “[F]or four or five months in 1942–43, five major league baseball players were enrolled in the Civilian Training Program at the college,” writes Szlosek, a Boston Red Sox fan. “This was their first step toward earning their wings in the Naval Aviation training regimen.”

“The quintet consisted of Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky of the Red Sox, Johnny Sain and Lewis (Buddy) Glemp of the Boston Braves and Joe Coleman of the Philadelphia Athletics,” Szlosek writes. These athletes were among 30 men who participated in the program on the Amherst campus, who “each received 35 hours of flight training, 20 of which were solo time. Additionally, they partook of classroom courses that included mathematics, meteorology and navigation, among others. The chief instructor was an Amherst professor of astronomy, Warren Green ….”

“Prompted by the suggestion of a knowledgeable baseball acquaintance,” one of Szlosek’s classmates and a College archivist recently undertook research into the 1940s program. For Szlosek, “it remains an amazing fact that two of my boyhood heroes walked the same pathways and sat in the same classrooms as I did a decade and a half later.” 

Amherst Alum and Astronomy Professor David Peck Todd Witnessed Total Solar Eclipse in Dallas in 1878

The Dallas Morning News – In the lead-up to the solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, a Dallas newspaper looks back at the one that occurred on July 29, 1878. In Texas to observe and report was Todd, a budding “eclipse chaser” who had graduated from Amherst in 1875 and would later return to teach at the College.   

The 23-year-old Todd is described as “a one-man expedition,” having “brought with him a $500 budget, a sextant, a chronometer and a comet seeker, a type of small telescope.” He and other scientists hoped the eclipse would teach them more about the sun’s corona and reveal the hypothetical planet Vulcan, suspected (wrongly) to exist between Mercury and the sun.

“[F]or Todd, it was the beginning of a long career,” writes Dan Singer. “After packing up his comet chaser, he went on to become a professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts and an eclipse chaser whose expeditions took him around the world. The Dallas expedition was his first. He died in 1939.”

Learn more about Todd’s life and career in “The Star-Crossed Astronomer,” a feature written by Julie Dobrow for the Summer 2017 issue of Amherst magazine.

Former FBI and CIA Director William Webster ’45: Answering the Call of His Country

InsideNoVa – On the occasion of his 100th birthday, a Northern Virginia news outlet describes the extraordinary career and current social life of Webster, the Amherst graduate, Navy veteran and lawyer who became, to date, the only person ever to lead both the FBI and the CIA. 

“Intelligence and integrity were among his super powers,” writes Daphne Hutchinson, “and that combination persuaded presidents from both parties to appoint him a high-level problem solver not only as director of those two agencies but also chairman of the Homeland Security Advisory Commission, leader of the commission investigating the 1992 Los Angeles riots and more. The list of appointments, achievements, awards, medals, honorary degrees and notes of merit would run pages. It includes the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

The article notes that Webster’s undergraduate education was interrupted by Navy service during the Second World War, and that his role model was lawyer and diplomat John J. McCloy, Amherst class of 1916, who advised numerous U.S. presidents and was “Instrumental in rebuilding post World War II Europe.”

Webster was also profiled by Katharine Whittemore in a feature for the Summer 2022 issue of Amherst magazine.

Alexander Hurst ’12 Asks: Can Traditions Help Build a More Open Europe?

The Guardian – “At a time when rightwing nationalism is in the ascendency, it is not surprising that many people may have a gut reaction against ‘traditions,’” writes Hurst, a columnist based in Paris, but “I think there is a way in which they can be embraced to forge a more inclusive identity.”

Citing scholars Judith Butler and Emanuel Adler, as well as his own feelings as an immigrant to Paris who now has French citizenship, Hurst muses on how people construct a sense of identity and belonging. He suggests that diverse local and regional festivals—such as Weiberfastnacht in Cologne, Germany, and carnival in Dunkirk, France—might cut against authoritarian nationalism, which conceives of each nation as a uniform whole that must be defended against outside threats.

“During my time as an undergraduate,” Hurst notes, “my small, picturesque New England liberal arts college, Amherst College, found itself in a recurring debate about cohesion, campus community and old traditions that had fallen away. In response, a small group of us who wrote for the student paper spent a weekend scouring its archives … to see what traditions once existed that might be brought back. (We decided it probably wasn’t feasible to resurrect the annual ‘kidnapping’ of the first, second, and third-year class ‘presidents’ by the senior class; we did, however, propose bringing back something called ‘Mountain Day.’)”

The Influence of Amherst Alum Dr. William Montague Cobb Went Beyond Medicine

American Heart Association News – Cobb, class of 1925, “was a doctor, an anthropologist, a teacher, an author, an editor, a crusader for civil rights, and so much more,” writes Michael Precker. “Cobb’s achievements, and his battle for acceptance, helped pave the way for Black scholars and medical professionals who followed him.”

His achievements, as listed in the article, include a medical degree from, and teaching career at, Howard University; the first doctorate in physical anthropology ever awarded to an African American; presidencies of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, National Medical Association and NAACP; and authorship of five books and more than 1,000 articles. 

“Cobb spent a lifetime,” Precker adds, “exposing unequal levels of health care for white and Black people, and campaigning to integrate medical facilities and provide equal opportunities for Black doctors and patients.” 

Cobb received an honorary doctorate from Amherst in 1955 and is the namesake of a scholarship fund at the College. There is also a health institute named for him at Howard. He passed away in 1990.

Meridith Randall ’82 Becomes New President of Golden West College

Los Angeles Times Daily Pilot – “Randall has been selected as Golden West College president by the Coast Community College District Board of Trustees,” reports Matt Szabo. The Amherst alumna had served as interim president of the Huntington Beach, Calif., community college since April 2023.

“Randall has nearly 30 years of experience in higher education, including 17 years as a chief instruction officer in the California Community College system,” the article continues. She arrived at Golden West as a vice president of instruction in July 2020 and was appointed interim president after the resignation of President Tim McGrath.

“The interim period, from my perspective, was taking care of some long-standing issues and getting things on track,” Randall is quoted as saying. “Now, it’s a new era. It’s an opportunity for the college to really make connections with the community that we haven’t had, and move forward on several projects that we’ve been talking about.” Those projects include, among others, expansion of the school’s health care program and free noncredit programs for community members.

Randall majored in English at Amherst and went on to earn a master’s degree from Cornell University and a J.D. from New York University School of Law.

Photos: Amherst Celebrates National Girls and Women in Sports Day

Daily Hampshire Gazette  – “The Amherst College Department of Athletics, in partnership with the town of Amherst and Amherst Recreation Department, held a National Girls and Women in Sports Day last Saturday,” reports a local newspaper, sharing photos of the day’s activities.

“Girls in grades 4–6 explored various sports led by the college’s women’s sports teams including: squash, basketball, softball, volleyball, soccer, tennis, field hockey, lacrosse, golf, cross country and track and field,” the report continues. “The event was part of the town’s eight days of Winterfest.”

Featured photos show young girls from the local community practicing skills in soccer, field hockey, tennis and softball on campus, with guidance from members of the College’s women’s athletic teams.