The mathematics world suffered a grievous blow over the weekend with the death of Professor Maryam Mirzakhani at the age of just 40. Mirakhani became interested in mathematics only in her last year of school, but quickly excelled, winning gold medals in the International Mathematical Olympiads in successive years. Twenty years later she became the first woman, and first Iranian, to win the Fields Medal, the “Nobel Prize” of mathematics.
Mirzakhani was born in Tehran in 1977. The Iranian revolution two years later curtailed opportunities for girls, but not so completely as to stop Mirzakhani representing her country at the Mathematical Olympiad in ’94 and ’95, winning gold medals both times. In 1995 she was the first Iranian to achieve a perfect score at the Olympiad.
After doing her undergraduate degree at the Sharif University of Technology Tehran, Mirzakhani became one of many Iranian scientists moving to the west. Universities, research labs, and hospitals in Europe, North America, and Australia have gained enormously out of the flood of talent that has recently left Iran. In Mirzakhani’s case, she completed a PhD at Harvard that dazzled her colleagues, before being employed at Stanford.
Although her achievements had already made her a prominent figure within mathematics circles, Mirzakhani became known to a wider audience in 2014, when she won the Fields Medal. Often referred to as the Nobel Prize for mathematicians, the Fields is only awarded every four years, to 2-4 mathematicians aged under 40 on each occasion.
Mirzakhani’s award credited her work on Riemann surfaces, but she had made significant advances in several other mathematical fields, such as proving a long-standing conjecture in Teichmüller dynamics and solving hyperbolic geometry. Despite the abstract nature of her work, it has possible implications for quantum field theory and the origins of the universe. There may also be engineering and materials sciences applications.
Her contribution was recognized with election to the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, among many other distinguished bodies. Mathematicians worldwide mourned Mirzakhani’s death. “Maryam was a brilliant mathematical theorist, and also a humble person who accepted honors only with the hope that it might encourage others to follow her path,” Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s said in a statement.
Mirzakhani was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, which subsequently spread to her bone marrow, causing her death. She leaves a husband, Jan Vondrak and daughter Anahita.
Despite Mirzakhani having spent almost half her life in the United States, she remained a figure of great pride in Iran. Her status there was such that even state-run newspapers broke their normal ban on showing women not wearing headscarves. Parliamentarians pushing for legislation allowing children of Iranian mothers to gain citizenship of the country used Anahita’s case to press for change.