For the first time ever, a woman has won the Fields Medal, considered by many to be mathematics' equivalent of the Nobel Prize, The New York Times reports. Maryam Mirzakhani, a professor of mathematics at Stanford University, received her prize today at a ceremony in Seoul, along with three other winners. The Fields Medal, which was established in 1936, also goes by the name the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics.
Mirzakhani, originally from Tehran, Iran, says that she always enjoyed mathematics because "it's like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case," she told Stanford News. By the time she was a teenager she had racked up awards at international mathematics competitions.
Mirzakhani's colleagues told Stanford News that she has an exceptional knack for making creative connections between seemingly unconnected phenomena. Her work these days (and for which she was awarded the Fields Medal) focuses on pure mathematics, specifically the behavior of dynamical systems. The New York Times elaborates:
There are no exact mathematical solutions for many dynamical systems, even simple ones.
“What Maryam discovered is that in another regime, the dynamical orbits are tightly constrained to follow algebraic laws,” said Curtis T. McMullen, a professor at Harvard who was Dr. Mirzakhani’s doctoral adviser. “These dynamical systems describe surfaces with many handles, like pretzels, whose shape is evolving over time by twisting and stretching in a precise way. They are related to billiards on tables that are not rectangular but still polygonal, like the regular octagon.”
Historically, mathematics has seen many exceptional female researchers. But that hasn't stopped decades of gender stereotyping about this particular field—boys are good at math; girls aren't. But as Mirzakhani told The New York Times, "All researchers in mathematics will tell you that there is no difference between the math done by a woman or a man." She added that she hopes her award encourages other female mathematicians and that she is "sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years."