Maryam Mirzakhani was the first woman to receive the prestigious Fields Medal for mathematics in 2014 for her work in complex geometry and dynamical systems. Born in 1977 and brought up in Iran after the revolution, Mirzakhani dreamt of becoming a novelist until she became aware of her flair and enthusiasm for math. Her interest however was discouraged by her sixth grade teacher in Tehran, telling her that she was not particularly talented in maths since her grades were not the best of her class.
Nevertheless, Mirzakhani persisted and started attending Farzanegan School, a school that has been found by the Iranian state for girls with high aptitude. At the age of 17, she won two gold medals in the International Mathematical Olympiad. She was the first Iranian woman to bring home gold medals from the competition for two consecutive years.
Her career became unstoppable with her wins. After graduating from Sharif University of Technology in Iran, she headed to the US for her graduate studies in Harvard. In 2008, she became a professor in Stanford.
Before she even won the award in 2014, Manjul Bhargava (who was also awarded the same year) was certain that Mirzakhani would receive the medal. “So much so that I did not expect to have much of a chance.” she said. This was because Bhargava heard that Mirzakhani has proven what is known as the magic-wand theorem.
Mirzakhani’s ingenuity was already recognized among her peers. She was known as “a master of curved spaces.” Before her work, mathematicians believed there was a finite amount of geodesics on a given surface that grew exponentially with the size of the surface. This idea limited their ability to make further calculations about surfaces.
“I think it’s rarely about what you actually learn in class it’s mostly about things that you stay motivated to go and continue to do on your own.”
Simply put by Bhargava “Everyone knows that the shortest distance between two points on a flat surface is a straight line. But if the surface is curved—for example, the surface of a ball or a doughnut—then the shortest distance. . . will also be along a curved path, and can thus be more complicated. Maryam proved many amazing theorems about such shortest paths—called ‘geodesics’—on curved surfaces, among many other remarkable results in geometry and beyond.” According to the University of Stanford, “Her work had implications in fields ranging from cryptography to “the theoretical physics of how the universe came to exist.”
“She would engage directly with the scientific challenge, with the mathematics, no matter how hard it was, and really go deep into the heart of the matter.” her doctoral advisor Curtis McCullen said. Mirzakhani was not only a talented mathematician but she also possessed a creative mind who could visualize more than what most people are able to see. She “would spend hours on the floor with supersized canvases of paper, sketching out ideas, drawing diagrams and formulae, often leading -her daughter- Anahita, now six, to exclaim, ‘Oh, Mommy is painting again!’”
Mirzakhani has died after her battle with breast cancer which had spread to her bones. But as Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne described “She was a brilliant mathematical theorist and also a humble person who accepted honours only with the hope that it might encourage others to follow her path. Maryam is gone far too soon but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science.”