Maryam Mirzakhani, the Only Woman to Have Ever Won a Fields Medal, Has Died at 40

Image via Stanford News Service

Stanford University professor Maryam Mirzakhani, the first and only woman and Iranian to ever win
a Fields medal, died on Saturday from breast cancer. She was 40
years old.

The Fields medal, presented every four years, is the most
prestigious award available in mathematics and considered the
equivalent of the Nobel prize. Mirzakhani was one of four
winners in 2014, having received the honor for her work on
complex geometry and dynamic systems, the Guardian
reports.

Mirzakhani’s death is “a big loss and shock to the mathematical
community worldwide,” Peter C. Sarnak, a mathematician at
Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study,
told the New York
Times
. “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 made news in 2014 after he tweeted a
congratulatory photo of Mirzakhani without a headscarf,
released a statement expressing his “great grief and sorrow:”
Via the Times:

“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.”

Unlike the Nobel prize, the Fields medal is only presented to
those under the age of 40, usually as a predictor of future
accomplishments. Mirzakhani’s work can be described as a
complex game of billiards with eternally bouncing balls—an
audacious undertaking that had been approached by several
prominent mathematicians before. The Times elaborates:

Sometimes, the path can be a repeating pattern. A simple
example is a ball that hits the side of a rectangular
billiards table at a right angle. It would then bounce back
and forth in a line forever, never moving to any other part
of the table.

But if it bounced at an angle, the trajectory would be more
intricate, and would often cover the entire table. “You want
to see the trajectory of the ball,” she explained in a video
produced by the Simons Foundation and the International
Mathematical Union to profile the 2014 Fields winners. “Would
it cover all your billiard table? Can you find closed
billiards paths? And interestingly enough, this is an open
question in general.”

In the Fields medal video, Mirzakhani explains that she hadn’t
always wanted to study math, and that as a child she’d wanted
to be a writer. She grew up in Tehran during the war with Iraq,
which ended just in time for her to enjoy her teenage years in
relative stability.

Mirzakhani received her bachelor’s degree from Sharif
University of Technology in Tehran before attending graduate
school at Harvard. She then became a professor at Princeton,
and joined at the staff at Stanford in 2008.

Colleagues told Stanford News Service
that Mirzakhani was “ambitious, resolute and fearless” in the
face of the problems she’d tackle—problems so thorny that other
mathematicians often shied away from them. “You’re torturing
yourself along the way,” she said, “but life isn’t supposed to
be easy.”

The Fields was established in 1936. Prior to 2014, every one of
its 52 recipients were men.

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