Science and Technology

Prominent mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017)

Stanford Mathematics Professor Maryam Mirzakhani, the first and to-date only female winner of the Fields Medal since its inception in 1936, died in the USA on 14 July 2017, after a four-year battle with cancer.  Mirzakhani was 40 years old. 

Prominent mathematicians worldwide reacted to her death in such words, “Maryam Mirzakhani’s death is a big loss and shock to the mathematical community worldwide. She was in the midst of doing fantastic work. 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.” 

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who had congratulated her in 2014, released a statement expressing his great grief and sorrow: “The unparalleled excellence of the creative scientist and humble person that echoed Iran’s name in scientific circles around the world,” he wrote, “was a turning point in introducing Iranian women and youth on their way to conquer the summits of pride and various international stages.” 

The Fields Medal is a prize awarded to two, three, or four mathematicians under 40 years of age at the International Congress of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), a meeting that takes place every four years. The Fields Medal was established in 1936.  Maryam Mirzakhani is the only woman among its 56 recipients. Mirzakhani won it in 2014 at the age of 37. It is the most prestigious award in mathematics, often equated in stature with the Nobel Prize. Mirzakhani specialised in theoretical mathematics that read like a foreign language by those outside of mathematics: moduli spaces, Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry. 

As a young girl, Maryam dreamed of becoming a writer. By high school, however, her affinity for solving mathematical problems and working on proofs shifted her sights. 

She attended an all-girls high school in Tehran. Mirzakhani first gained international recognition as a teenager, winning gold medals at International Math Olympiads held in Hong Kong (1994) and Toronto (1995).  In the Toronto Olympiad, she notched a perfect score and another gold medal. In February 1998, a bus bringing the mathematical elite of Tehran’s Sharif University back from a competition in the western city of Ahwaz skidded out of control and crashed into a ravine. Seven award-winning mathematicians and two drivers lost their lives in that crash. One of the survivors was Maryam Mirzakhani!

After earning her bachelor’s degree from Sharif University of Technology in 1999, she began work on her doctorate at Harvard University under the guidance of the 1998 Fields Medalist, Curtis McMullen. At Harvard, Mirzakhani was distinguished by her determination and relentless questioning, despite the language barrier. She peppered her professors with questions in English. She jotted her notes in Farsi.  She obtained PhD in 2004. From 2004 to 2008, Maryam was a Clay Mathematics Institute Research Fellow and an assistant Professor at Princeton University. Mirzakhani joined the faculty of Stanford University in 2008, where she served as a professor of mathematics until her death. 

Experts say that her achievements “combined superb problem-solving ability, ambitious mathematical vision and fluency in many disciplines, which is unusual in the modern era, when considerable specialisation is often required to reach the frontier”. Her honours include the 2009 Blumenthal Award for the Advancement of Research in Pure Mathematics and the 2013 Satter Prize of the American Mathematical Society. The Stanford University is scheduled to organise a memorial service and an academic symposium in her honour in the fall, when students and faculty have returned to campus.  Many other institutions are expected to hold similar functions.

The writer teaches in Department of Mathematics and Sciences, College of Arts and Applied Sciences, Dhofar University, Salalah, Sultanate of Oman.

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