The Sad Passing Of Maryam Mirzakhani - The World's First Female Field's Medal Winner

15th November 2017

We are sure many of you will have heard of the untimely passing in July of the brilliant mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, the first and currently only woman to have ever won the prestigious Fields Medal (equivalent to the Nobel prize in mathematics.)

Iranian born Mirzakhani was a professor and researcher at Stanford University and her contributions to modern mathematics were and continue to be truly epic. The far-reaching implications of her work in a variety of fields will continue to be studied long after her tragic death aged only 40 after a long battle with breast cancer.

She specialized in the fields of hyperbolic geometry, Teichmüller theory, moduli spaces, ergodic theory, and symplectic geometry or “science-fiction mathematics” to us mere mortals.  She made not only great leaps in theory but also found ways to marry these leaps of deduction in ways others could not imagine. “Her work opens new frontiers of research that are just starting to be explored,” said Curtis McMullen of Harvard University, who was Mirzakhani’s doctoral adviser. “She approached new mathematics with fearless ambition.”

Professor McMullen

Standford University says her work was “highly theoretical in nature, but it 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.”

We could rave about her mathematical discoveries and incredible accomplishments and quite rightly so, but we are going to focus on the person behind the mathematician instead – and why her qualities as a person made her the mindboggling mathematician she became. This is not just because she is a woman but because we at ConquerMaths headquarters find her personal history and her unique tenacious and creative spirit particularly inspiring.

Born in Tehran was a little girl who was a fantasist, inspired by a love of books to dream of becoming a great novelist. She watched documentaries about inspirational women like Madam Curie and Helen Keller and knew that somehow she wanted to make her mark on the world – she just didn’t know yet that it would be in mathematics.

Madam Curie 

There is a persistent rumour that Albert Einstein failed maths class at an early age – which is actually patently untrue - but one thing we love about Mirzakhani’s story is that this nearly happened to her.

Fortunately the Iran-Iraq war ended as she finished primary school so she was able to progress fairly normally with her education but it can’t have been easy growing up in such a tense situation, however she didn’t let it bother her, saying “I think I was the lucky generation, I was a teenager when things got more stable” Her exceptional talents helped get her through, all the way to Harvard but not before some discouragement of a more fundamental nature nearly ruined everything.

In primary school, no doubt distracted by the amount of reading material available, she did not excel in maths right away despite being naturally interested in the subject and one teacher in particular discouraged her. This almost led to the world losing an amazing genius because of one careless teachers lack of faith.  At that age “it’s so important what others see in you,” Mirzakhani told interviewers “I lost my interest in math.” Can you imagine what a loss to the world that would have been?

In the next year with the support of a more supportive teacher Mirzakhani tried again and began to shine. Subsequent teachers and her older brother continued to support her meteoric rise through the Iranian education system. She read every book available, but also became intrigued by the International Mathematical Olympiad.

She approached the head of her girl’s high school who supported her desire to take the same classes as the boy’s high school taught and compete. Mirzakhani said. “Her mindset was very positive and upbeat — that ‘you can do it, even though you’ll be the first one.’ I think that has influenced my life quite a lot.” That shows the power a great educator can have on the world as opposed to the teacher who told her at a young age she was not especially talented in maths and shouldn’t bother.

Mirzakhani went on to become the first girl to represent Iran in the competition, winning gold medals in two successive years including a perfect score in her second triumph. One can only imagine how intimidating and daunting that must have been for a young woman, especially one brought up in such an oppressive regime.

She went on to study at Shariff University, surviving a bus crash which killed several respected Iranian mathematicians and then on to Harvard to do her graduate degree.

From there she went on to work at the highly respected Stanford University where she began her astonishing work in earnest. She met her husband Jan Vondrak, a theoretical computer scientist, and they had a daughter Anahita, now aged six. She collaborated with other great mathematical minds and produced the ground-breaking work for which she has been so recognized with the Field’s medal.

The fact that she accomplished so much in such a relatively short space of time is incredible and to win the Field’s medal is an amazing accomplishment, but to do all this while not only raising a small child but also spending the last four years fighting cancer. Well, we can’t imagine the kind of tenacious and courageous mind that could manage that.

She described herself as a ‘slow’ mathematician but colleagues described her as ‘ambitious, resolute and fearless in the face of problems others would not, or could not, tackle.’ She would take her time and completely immerse herself in problems, sometimes for years at a time and reach deeper levels of understanding than anyone else, while simultaneously being incredibly humble and willing to collaborate, teach and share.

To show you what an impact on the wider world Mirzakhani had, on her passing newspapers in her extremely conservative home country of Iran printed pictures of her on the front page – without her traditional head covering which is a practically un-heard of precedent.

The Iranian president Hassan Rouhani also paid tribute to her, saying that the “unprecedented brilliance of this creative scientist and modest human being, who made Iran’s name resonate in the world’s scientific forums, was a turning point in showing the great will of Iranian women and young people on the path towards reaching the peaks of glory.” 

 Ingrid Daubechies, a math professor at Duke University says “Women mathematicians all over the world are e-mailing each other, trying to comfort each other. It is heart breaking that we had to lose a gifted mathematician and wonderful role model so soon.”

We hope you see as we do what an impressive person as well as mathematician Maryam truly was, and we mourn her passing with the rest of the mathematical community. We hope her legacy continued to inspire others for many years to come.