“I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it. I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers.”
Maryam Mirzakhani was probably gifted with a lot of patience, because despite doing poorly in mathematics for a few years in school, she was mourned as one of the best mathematical minds in the world when she died on July 14. She was 40 years old. She had been battling breast cancer since 2013; the disease spread to her liver and bones in 2016.
Mirzakhani rose to international fame when she became the first woman to win the Fields Medal in 2014, the most prestigious award in the field of mathematics. The Iranian mathematician won the prize for her “outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Rieman surfaces and their moduli spaces.” She shared the award with three other mathematicians – all men.
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Born in Tehran in 1977, Mirzakhani attended school there and obtained her BSc in mathematics in 1999 from Sharif University of Technology in Iran. In 1994, while still in school, Mirzakhani achieved the gold medal level in the International Mathematical Olympiad, becoming the first female Iranian student to do so. In the 1995 Olympiad, she became the first Iranian student to achieve a perfect score and won two gold medals.
In 2004, Mirzkhani earned a PhD from Harvard University where she worked under the supervision of Fields medalist Curtis Mullen. In 2008, Mirzkhani joined Stanford University as a professor.
“Mirzakhani specialized 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,” a statement issued by Stanford University said.
“Mastering these approaches allowed Mirzakhani to pursue her fascination for describing the geometric and dynamic complexities of curved surfaces spheres, doughnut shapes and even amoebas – in as great detail as possible.”
Her work had implications in fields ranging from cryptography to “the theoretical physics of how the universe came to exist”, the university said.
“Maryam was a wonderful colleague,” said Ralph L. Cohen, the Barbara Kimball Browning Professor of Mathematics at Stanford. “She not only was a brilliant and fearless researcher, but she was also a great teacher and terrific PhD adviser. Maryam embodied what being a mathematician or scientist is all about: the attempt to solve a problem that hadn’t been solved before, or to understand something that hadn’t been understood before. This is driven by a deep intellectual curiosity, and there is great joy and satisfaction with every bit of success. Maryam had one of the great intellects of our time, and she was a wonderful person. She will be tremendously missed.”
Mirzakhani is survived by her husband, Jan Vondrák, and a daughter, Anahita.