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Maryam Mirzakhani, the genius in the Mathematics jungle

Educated in Iran and the US, this Stanford University professor blazed a trail for women in Mathematics.
BY Uma Asher |   17-07-2017
Maryam Mirzakhani

Maryam Mirzakhani

There is no Nobel Prize for Mathematics, and many consider the Fields Medal, established in 1936, an equally prestigious honor. This prize is announced only once in four years, and was most recently awarded in 2014. One of the four recipients was Iranian-born Stanford University professor Maryam Mirzakhani. Not only was she the first woman to receive this honor, but also the first Iranian. Mirzakhani lost her battle with cancer on July 15, 2017. She was only 40 years old.

Early education
Born in 1977 and raised in Tehran, Mirzakhani loved reading novels as a child, and dreamed of becoming a writer. In high school, however, she discovered her love for solving math problems. “I got excited about it just as a challenge,” the science news website phys.org quoted her as saying. “It is fun—it’s like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case… I felt that this was something I could do, and I wanted to pursue this path.”

Mirzakhani attended the girls-only Farzanegan School, part of the National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents (NODET), which runs nearly 100 middle and high schools across Iran, where gifted students take college-level advanced courses.

To be accepted into one of these schools, one has to pass a national entrance exam. Of the thousands who take the exam each year, less than 1% are accepted into these schools. Many alumni of NODET schools pursue higher studies in top Iranian universities and abroad, and many have won honors at International Science Olympiads. Mirzakhani was no exception – she won gold medals at the Math Olympiad in 1994 and again in 1995, finishing with a perfect score the second time.

In 1979, when Mirzakhani was still a toddler, Iran went through a massive political upheaval - the Islamic Revolution. Attempts by the new revolutionary government to force a strict dress code on women, and to exclude them from jobs and education, were met with resistance. “I was the lucky generation, because I was a teenager when things became more stable,” Mirzakhani said.

In 1999, she got her BSc in mathematics from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran.

Off to the US
Mirzakhani went to the United States for higher studies, and got her PhD from Harvard University in 2004, where she worked under the supervision of Dr Curtis McMullen, a Fields Medalist himself.

In 2004, Mirzakhani became a research fellow at the Clay Mathematics Institute, a private non-profit institution in New Hampshire, and also taught at Princeton University. In 2008, she joined the Mathematics faculty at Stanford University, where she worked until her death.

Among more than a dozen top honors, Mirzakhani won the Blumenthal Award (2009) for the Advancement of Research in Pure Mathematics, and the Satter Prize of the American Mathematical Society (2013).

She specialized in theoretical mathematics, pursuing her fascination with the geometric and dynamic complexities of curved surfaces. A Stanford News report noted that she was a “self-professed ‘slow’ mathematician”, and that her colleagues described her as ambitious, resolute and fearless in the face of problems others would not, or could not, tackle.

It noted that her preferred method of working on a problem was to doodle on large sheets of white paper, scribbling formulas on the periphery of her drawings – a method that her young daughter Anahita described as “painting”.

The report also noted that her work could have “impacts concerning the theoretical physics of how the universe came to exist and, because it could inform quantum field theory, secondary applications to engineering and material science. Within mathematics, it has implications for the study of prime numbers and cryptography.”

In 2013, Mirzakhani learned that she had breast cancer, but that did not stop her. She collaborated with University of Chicago mathematician Alex Eskin “to take on another of the most-vexing problems in the field: the trajectory of a billiards ball around a polygonal table,” Stanford News noted. The challenge, which began as a thought exercise among physicists a century ago and had remained unsolved, led to Mirzakhani and Eskin publishing a 200-page paper in 2014, hailed as “the beginning of a new era” in mathematics.

The Fields Medal
The Fields Medal was in recognition of Mirzakhani’s sophisticated contributions to the fields of geometry and dynamical systems, particularly in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces such as spheres. “Fluent in a remarkably diverse range of mathematical techniques and disparate mathematical cultures, she embodies a rare combination of superb technical ability, bold ambition, far-reaching vision, and deep curiosity,” the International Congress of Mathematicians, which awards the Fields Medal, said in a statement.

Mirzakhani said in a statement, “This is a great honour. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians… I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, congratulated Mirzakhani in a letter, and said, “Today, Iranians can be proud that the first woman to win the fields medal is their fellow compatriot. Yes, the best deserve to be on top and be appreciated. Every Iranian, no matter where she/he is in this world, is a national asset for this country and I as the representative of Iranian nation pay my respect to you. I wish you a life filled with happiness and success.”

The battle with cancer
In 2016, the cancer spread to Mirzakhani’s liver and bones. She died in hospital on July 15, 2017, leaving behind her daughter Anahita, and husband, Stanford mathematician Jan Vondrak.

Announcing Mirzakhani’s death on Instagram, her friend Firouz Naderi, a former director of Solar Systems Exploration at NASA, said, “A light was turned off today. It breaks my heart ..... gone far too soon.” He later added: “A genius? Yes. But also a daughter, a mother and a wife.”

As Iran too mourned her passing, President Rouhani praised the “unprecedented brilliance of this creative scientist and modest human being, who made Iran’s name resonate in the world’s scientific forums, (and) was a turning point in showing the great will of Iranian women and young people on the path towards reaching the peaks of glory ... in various international arenas.”

Mirzakhani’s impact “will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science,” said Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. He described her as “a humble person who accepted honors only with the hope that it might encourage others to follow her path.”

Mirzakhani likened Mathematics to an adventure, “like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.”
 

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