The First Woman To Win The Highest Honour In Mathematics Loses Battle With Cancer At 40

The Logical Indian Crew

July 17th, 2017 / 6:38 PM

Maryam Mirzakhani

Courtesy: The Guardian | Image Credit: Stanford University

Maryam Mirzakhani, the world’s first woman and the first Iranian to win the Fields Medal Prize, died at the age of forty on 14 July 2017.

The Fields Medal, first given in 1936, is awarded to exceptional talents in Mathematics under the age of 40 once every four years.

A Stanford University professor, she died in hospital in California on Saturday after a four-year battle with breast cancer which had spread to her bone marrow.

Iran overflowed with tributes for the mathematician – newspapers ran pictures of her despite a strict rule against women not covering their heads. President Hassan Rouhani too posted a picture of her without Hijab on his Instagram page. “The grievous passing of Maryam Mirzakhani, the eminent Iranian and world-renowned mathematician, is very much heartrending,” he wrote, reported The Guardian.

‌ درگذشت اندوه‏بار مریم میرزاخانی، #نابغه نامدار #ریاضی ایران و جهان موجب تأثر فراوان شد. ‌ درخشش بی‌نظیر این #دانشمند خلاق و انسان متواضع که نام ایران را در مجامع علمی جهانی طنین‏‌انداز کرد، نقطه عطفی در معرفی همت والای #زنان و جوانان ایرانی در مسیر کسب قله‌های افتخار در عرصه‌های گوناگون بین‌المللی بود. ‌ این‏جانب ضمن ارج نهادن به خدمات علمی و آثار ماندگار این فرزند فرهیخته ایران، مصیبت وارده را به جامعه علمی کشور و خانواده محترم آن عزیز از دست رفته صمیمانه تسلیت می‏‌گویم. ‌ #مریم_میرزاخانی (۱۳۹۶-۱۳۵۶) #فرزند_ایران ‌

A post shared by Hassan Rouhani • حسن روحانی (@hrouhani) on

In 2014, when Mirzakhani became the first woman to win the Fields Medal, often described as the Nobel prize for Mathematics, Iranian newspapers digitally retouched her photographs to put a scarf over her head. A few other newspapers published pictures where only her face showed.

Three years hence, the front page of Hamshahri, a state newspaper read, “Maths genius yielded to algebra of death,” – without a scarf over her head.

From Tehran to Stanford

Born on 3 May 1977 in Tehran, Mirzakhani attended a school which was a part of the National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents.

In 1994, she became the first Iranian female student to win gold at the International Mathematical Olympiad; and a year later, she became the first Iranian student to secure a perfect score and win two gold medals.

She obtained her BSc in mathematics in 1999 from Tehran and went on to pursue a PhD from Harvard in 2004, where she worked under the supervision of Fields Medalist Curtis McMullen.

Subsequently, she became a research fellow at the Clay Mathematics University and then a professor at Princeton University. In 2008, she became a professor at Stanford University.

In a 2008 interview, Mirzakhani said that she dreamt of becoming a writer as a child and did poorly at Maths. Her elder brother encouraged her to take the subject.

She has predominantly worked on geometric structures on surfaces and their deformations. A statement from Stanford said she “specialised 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,” reported The Guardian.

Breaking Taboos even after death

A group of Parliamentarians in Iran on Sunday urged the speeding up of an amendment to a law that would allow children of Iranian mothers married to foreigners to be given Iranian nationality.  

Mirzakhani was married to Lan Vondrák, a Czech theoretical computer scientist and applied mathematician who is an associate professor at Stanford University. He is a non-Muslim and marriage between an Iranian woman and non-Muslim man was previously not recognised by the country, making visits to Iran by the children difficult.

She has always been an advocate for uplifting the status of women in the society and continues to do so.


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