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Remembering the Brilliant Maryam Mirzakhani, the Only Woman to Win a Fields Medal

The Stanford professor investigated the mathematics of curved surfaces, writing many groundbreaking papers

Maryam Mirzakhani (Stanford News Service)
smithsonian.com

Last Friday, Stanford University mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, the first and only woman to receive the Fields Medal, died at the age of 40 reports Kenneth Chang at The New York Times.

The Fields Medal is often described as the Nobel Prize for mathematics—but it's awarded every four years "to recognize outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement," according to the Fields Medal website. Recipients must all be under the age of 40.

According to a press release, Mirzakhani received the prize in 2014 for her work in theoretical mathematics focusing on the detailed description of curved surfaces. She also published a major work in 2013 along with Alex Eskin describing the path of a billiard ball around a polygonal table. While it seems simple, it’s a problem mathematicians wrestled with for over century, and Mirzakhani and Eskin's solution was called “the beginning of a new era” in mathematics.

While highly theoretical, her work had implications for quantum field theory and theoretical physics as well as engineering, prime numbers and cryptography. “She was in the midst of doing fantastic work,” Peter C. ​Sarnak, a mathematician at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, tells Chang. “Not only did she solve many problems; in solving problems, she developed tools that are now the bread and butter of people working in the field.”

Mirzakhani was born in Tehran, Iran, and attended an all-girls school in her youth. She wasn't always interested in math, she says in a Quanta Magazine video. "I was more excited about reading novels, and I thought I would become a writer one day," she laughs. But she soon fell in love with the world of numbers.

She went on to become the first woman to join Iran’s International Mathematical Olympiad team, earning gold medals in the competition in 1994 and 1995. She went to college at Tehran’s Sharif University before heading to Harvard, where she earned her doctorate. Her 2004 thesis is considered a masterpiece and led to articles in three top mathematics journals. “The majority of mathematicians will never produce something as good,” Benson Farb, a mathematician at the University of the Chicago said of the work. “And that’s what she did in her thesis.”

Mirzakhani accepted a position at Princeton before moving to Stanford in 2008, where she continued with the work that led her Fields Medal.

While Mirzakhani has had a huge influence on the field of mathematics, her legacy is having a cultural influence on her home country as well. As Saeed Kamali Dehghan reports for The Guardian, after winning the Fields, Mirzakhani was featured on the front pages of several Iranian publications. Most of the images of Mirzakhani were digitally retouched to cover her head with a scarf since it is considered taboo to publish images of women not wearing a hijab. 

But several papers went against the grain, featuring images of Mirzakhani with no head covering. President Hassan Rouhani even posted a photo of Mirzakhani without a head scarf on his Instagram with the caption: “The grievous passing of Maryam Mirzakhani, the eminent Iranian and world-renowned mathematician, is very much heartrending.”

In 2013, at the height of her brief career, Mirzakhani was diagnosed with breast cancer. Last year, the cancer spread to her liver and bones, eventually taking her life. “Maryam had one of the great intellects of our time, and she was a wonderful person,” says colleague Ralph L. Cohen, the Barbara Kimball Browning Professor of Mathematics at Stanford. “She will be tremendously missed.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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