Maths 'genius' Maryam Mirzakhani, First Woman to Win Fields Medal, Dies Age 40

By Updated at 2017-07-15 18:46:03 +0000


The Iranian-born professor, Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to receive the prestigious Fields Medal –considered the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize – for mathematics, has died in the US.

The 40-year-old had breast cancer, which had spread to her bones.

"A light was turned off today. It breaks my heart... gone far too soon," her friend, Nasa scientist Firouz Naderi, posted on Instagram.

Trailblazing female maths genius

The award recognised her highly original work in the fields of geometry and dynamical systems citing “her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces”.

Wisconsin professor Jordan Ellenberg described her research in a blog post at the time: “Her work expertly blends dynamics with geometry. Among other things, she studies billiards.

“But now, in a move very characteristic of modern mathematics, it gets kind of meta: She considers not just one billiard table, but the universe of all possible billiard tables.

“This isn't the kind of thing you do to win at pool, but it's the kind of thing you do to win a Fields Medal.”

Professor Mirzakhani graduated from the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran in 1999.

She went on to complete a PhD on hyperbolic surfaces – theoretical doughnut-like shapes – at Harvard in 2004.

Curtis McMullen, her doctoral adviser, had won the Field Medal himself in 1998.

The professor later collaborated with American mathematician Alex Eskin on research about the dynamics of abstract surfaces connected to billiard tables.

She doodled three-dimensional shapes constantly while she worked, and was known for her slow, measured approach to mathematical problems.

No other woman has won the prize, which is awarded every four years to up to four mathematicians under 40, an age at which many women are re-entering the workplace after having children.

She was also the first Iranian to win a Fields Medal.

She entered the Iranian International Mathematical Olympiad team at 17 in 1994, becoming the first girl to win a gold medal in 1994 and a perfect score the following year.

She had first taken an interest in maths when her older brother told her about how German mathematician Gauss discovered the formula for adding numbers from 1 to 100.

“It was the first time I enjoyed a beautiful solution,” she said in an interview given to the Clay Institute where she was a Research Fellow from 2004 to 2008.

“Of course, the most rewarding part is the ‘Aha’ moment, the excitement of discovery and enjoyment of understanding something new – the feeling of being on top of a hill and having a clear view. Most of the time, doing mathematics for me is like being on a long hike with no trail and no end in sight.”

The editor of the magazine has paid tribute to Professor Mirzakhani as “one of the kindest and certainly smartest people I have ever met.”

Professor Mirzakhani is survived by her husband, an associate professor at Stanford University, and daughter Anahita.