First female winner of math’s top honor
Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian mathematician and the only woman to win a Fields Medal, the most prestigious honor in mathematics, died Saturday. She was 40.
The cause was breast cancer, said Stanford University, where she was a professor. The university did not say where she died.
Her death is “a big loss and shock to the mathematical community worldwide,” said Peter Sarnak, a mathematician at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study.
The Fields Medal, established in 1936, is often described as the Nobel Prize of mathematics.
“She was in the midst of doing fantastic work,” Sarnak said. “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.”
Mirzakhani was one of four Fields winners in 2014 at the International Congress of Mathematicians in South Korea. Until then, all 52 recipients had been men. She is also the only Iranian to win the award.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani released a statement expressing “great grief and sorrow.”
He wrote, “The unparalleled excellence of the creative scientist and humble person that echoed Iran’s name in scientific circles around the world was a turning point in introducing Iranian women and youth on their way to conquer the summits of pride and various international stages.”
Mirzakhani’s mathematics looked at the interplay of dynamics and geometry, in some ways a more complicated version of billiards, with balls bouncing from one side to another on a rectangular billiards table eternally.
Mirzakhani was born on May 3, 1977, in Tehran. As a child, she read voraciously and wanted to become a writer.
In high school, she was a member of the Iranian team at the International Mathematical Olympiad. She won a gold medal in the olympiad in 1994, and the next year she won another gold medal, with a perfect score. After completing a bachelor’s degree at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran in 1999, she attended graduate school at Harvard. She then became a professor at Princeton before moving to Stanford in 2008.
Survivors include her husband, Jan Vondrak, who is also a mathematics professor at Stanford, and a daughter, Anahita.