Professor Maryam Mirzakhani is the recipient of the 2014 Fields Medal, the top honor in mathematics. She is the first woman in the prize's 80-year history to earn the distinction. The Fields Medal is awarded every four years on the occasion of the International Congress of Mathematicians to recognize outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement. (Photo by Courtesy: Maryam Mirzakhani/Corbis via Getty Images)
July 17, 2017

Maryam Mirzakhani, only woman to win Math’s top prize, has died

Maryam Mirzakhani, the Stanford University professor who in 2014 became the first and to date only woman to win the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize, died Friday after a long battle with breast cancer, BBC News, the New York Times and other media outlets have reported.

Born in Tehran, Iran in May 1977, Mirzakhani was awarded the Fields Medal (an honor given to between two and four mathematicians under the age of forty every four years) three years ago for her work on the interplay of dynamics and complex geometry, according to published reports.

Mirzakhani joined the Stanford faculty in 2008 and remained a professor there until her death, the university said in a statement. She had been battling breast cancer for several years, and the illness had recently spread to her liver and bones. Mirzakhani was 40 at the time of her passing, and is survived by her husband, Jan Vondrák, and a daughter, Anahita.

In an interview with the New York Times, Princeton University mathematician Peter C. Sarnak called her death “a big loss and shock to the mathematical community worldwide... She was in the midst of doing fantastic work. 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.”

“Maryam is gone far too soon,” Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said in a statement, “but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science... Her contributions as both a scholar and a role model are significant and enduring, and she will be dearly missed here at Stanford and around the world.”

‘Brilliant’ researcher ‘embodied’ the spirit of a mathematician

According to the university, Mirzakhani specialized in the fields of moduli spaces, Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry, using these complicated approaches to describe the geometric and dynamic complexities of curved surfaces like spheres and doughnuts in as much detail as possible.

While the majority of her work was theoretical in nature, Stanford explained, it could have an impact on the theoretical physics of the universe’s origins, as well as on the fields of engineering and material sciences (through quantum field theory) and mathematical cryptography. In addition to being the first female winner of the Fields Medal, she was also the first Iranian mathematician to receive the honor, according to BBC News.

“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,” said Tessier-Lavigne. Her Stanford colleague, Ralph L. Cohen, caller her a “a wonderful colleague” who “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,” Cohen added. “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.”


Image credit: Getty