First woman to win famed Fields Medal in math­e­mat­ics

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­

Maryam Mirza­khani, an Ira­nian-born math­e­ma­ti­cian who in 2014 be­came the first woman awarded the Fields Medal, of­ten called the most pres­ti­gious prize in math­e­mat­ics, died July 15. She was 40.

Stan­ford Univer­sity, where she had been a pro­fes­sor since 2008, an­nounced her death but did not say where she died. The cause was breast can­cer.

Dr. Mirza­khani grew up in Tehran and came to the United States in 1999 for grad­u­ate study at Har­vard Univer­sity. Her math­e­mat­i­cal in­ter­ests in­cluded the the­o­ret­i­cal study of com­plex geo­met­ric shapes and the move­ment of bil­liard balls across sur­faces.

Her work was deeply the­o­ret­i­cal, but other math­e­ma­ti­cians con­sid­ered it boldly orig­i­nal and of un­told fu­ture im­por­tance. Her doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion, which she com­pleted in 2004, solved two long-stand­ing math­e­mat­i­cal prob­lems and led to pub­li­ca­tions in three ma­jor math­e­mat­ics jour­nals.

“She has a fear­less am­bi­tion when it comes to math­e­mat­ics,” her Har­vard men­tor, Cur­tis McMullen, a past Fields Medal win­ner, told Quanta Magazine in 2014.

Another aca­demic col­lab­o­ra­tor, Univer­sity of Chicago math­e­ma­ti­cian Alex Eskin, de­scribed her con­tri­bu­tions as “the kind of math­e­mat­ics you im­me­di­ately rec­og­nize be­longs in a text­book.”

Dr. Mirza­khani was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the “geo­met­ric and dy­namic com­plex­i­ties of curved sur­faces,” Stan­ford said in a state­ment. These sur­faces in­cluded spheres, amoe­bas and com­plex hy­per­bolic struc­tures, or sad­dle­shaped or dough­nut-shaped ab­stract ob­jects with mul­ti­ple open­ings. She also stud­ied the dy­nam­ics of how par­ti­cles move or flow sur­faces — like the tra­jec­tory of bil­liard balls rolling on ta­bles of dif­fer­ent con­fig­u­ra­tions.

Her work is al­ready widely in­flu­en­tial in math­e­mat­ics, with pos­si­ble fu­ture use in en­gi­neer­ing, cryp­tog­ra­phy and the­o­ret­i­cal physics, in­clud­ing stud­ies of the ori­gin of the uni­verse.

In 2014, she was one of four math­e­ma­ti­cians to re­ceive the Fields Medal — of­fi­cially called In­ter­na­tional Medal for Out­stand­ing Dis­cov­er­ies in Math­e­mat­ics, which is awarded by the In­ter­na­tional Math­e­mat­i­cal Union. Some­times called the equiv­a­lent of the No­bel Prize, it is pre­sented ev­ery four years to no more than four math­e­ma­ti­cians un­der the age of 40.

When Dr. Mirza­khani won the Fields Medal, it was con­sid­ered a mo­ment of great sym­bolic im­por tance for women in math­e­mat­ics and sci­ence. She is the only woman to have re­ceived the medal, named for Cana­dian math­e­ma­ti­cian John Charles Fields, since it was first awarded in 1936.

She of­ten sketched math­e­mat­i­cal proofs on large sheets of paper — a process her young daugh­ter called “paint­ing” and which Dr. Mirza­khani likened to com­pos­ing a novel.

“There are dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters, and you are get­ting to know them bet­ter,” she told Quanta Magazine. “Things evolve, and then you look back at a char­ac­ter, and it’s com­pletely dif­fer­ent from your first im­pres­sion.”

Maryam Mirza­khani was born May 3, 1977, in Tehran. In the few in­ter­views she gave, she said that as a child, she wanted to be a writer, but she re­vealed noth­ing about her par­ents or their oc­cu­pa­tions.

She did say that she be­came in­ter­ested in math­e­mat­ics af­ter her older brother told her about a short­hand way to add all the num­bers from 1 to 100. The trick, de­vised in the 18th cen­tury by Carl Friedrich Gauss, is to add the out­er­most pairs of num­bers: 1 plus 100, 2 plus 99, 3 plus 98, and so on. Each time, the sum is 101. There are 50 pairs of num­bers. Mul­ti­ply­ing 50 by 101 yields the an­swer: 5,050.

While at­tend­ing a girls’ high school in Tehran, Dr. Mirza­khani earned gold medals in in­ter­na­tional math com­pe­ti­tions, in­clud the ing a per­fect score in 1995. She grad­u­ated from Tehran’s Sharif Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy in 1999 and re­ceived her doc­tor­ate in math­e­mat­ics from Har­vard in 2004.

She taught at Prince­ton Univer­sity and was a re­search fel­low with the Clay Math­e­mat­ics In­sti­tute in New Hamp­shire be­fore join­ing the Stan­ford fac­ulty. Dr. Mirza­khani’s death was noted in a state­ment is­sued by Has­san Rouhani, pres­i­dent of Iran.

Sur­vivors in­clude her hus­band, com­puter sci­en­tist Jan Von­drak of Stan­ford, Calif.; and their 6-yearold daugh­ter, Anahita.

“I don’t have any par­tic­u­lar recipe,” Dr. Mirza­khani said in 2014 af­ter win­ning the Fields Medal. But she said she de­rived a deep sense of joy from ex­plor­ing math­e­mat­i­cal prob­lems.

“It is like be­ing lost in a jun­gle,” she said, “and try­ing to use all the knowl­edge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.”


Maryam Mirza­khani, who grew up in Tehran and came to the United States in 1999 for grad­u­ate stud­ies at Har­vard Univer­sity, was a pro­fes­sor at Stan­ford Univer­sity since 2008.

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