By Humra Laeeq
In what the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani describes as the cause of “great sorrow”, the country recently lost one of its prized possessions. Maryam Mirzakhani, the Iran-born mathematician who pioneered several fronts in Iranian and world history passed away on July 15.
After a four year long struggle, breast cancer ultimately sapped the life out of Mirzakhani at the age of 40. Her husband Jan Vondrák, a theoretical computer scientist, and their daughter shared the loss. Former director of Solar Systems Exploration at NASA and her close friend, Naderi, said on Instagram: “A light was turned off”.
Breaking records: Winning the Fields Medal
Mirzakhani was the first woman and Iranian to win the coveted Fields Medal in 2014, the highest honour in mathematics and equivalent to the Nobel Prize. The award was established in 1936 by the International Mathematical Union and has been presented every four years since 1950.
All 52 recipients before Mirazkhani were men. She had been awarded the Fields Medal alongside Artur Avila, Manjul Bhargava and Martin Hairer. Her contribution lay in, as the citation read “the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.” Riemann surfaces are complex curved surfaces like doughnuts whose geometrical interactions Mirzakhani studied.
Mirzakhani’s field of expertise
Like all great minds, Mirzakhani’s was a curious one. For her, math was “fun like solving a puzzle” or like “connecting the dots in a detective case”. She used all her knowledge and tricks to find her way out of the mathematical ‘jungle’ wherein many unlike her get lost. Mathematical fields that read like a foreign language to those outside of mathematics—Ergodic theory, hyperbolic geometry, and Teichmüller theory are areas she achieved milestones in.
Mirzakhani has described complexities of curved-surfaces spheres, doughnut shapes, and even amoebas in high detail. Her work can give insights into theoretical physics concerning the existence of the universe. By informing quantum field theory, it can be applied to engineering and material science. Within mathematics, it studies prime numbers and the art of code-solving cryptography.
Journey towards a global crown
Mirzakhani was born in 1977 in Iran and raised in the capital, Tehran. Her initial dreams were inclined towards writing, which changed when she entered high school. Fueled by her passion for solving mathematical problems, her ambitions took a turn. From an all-girls high school to Bachelor of Science in Mathematics at Sharif University, Mirzakhani kept on refining her skill at mathematical proofs.
Her hard work earned her gold medals at both the 1994 and 1995 International Math Olympiads—finishing with a perfect score in the latter competition. With international recognition as her crowning glory, there was no barrier for the young mathematician.
In 2004, Mirzakhani went on to earn a PhD degree from Harvard. She then taught at Princeton University before moving to Stanford in 2008. In the meanwhile, she had been a research fellow at the Clay Mathematics Institute, North Hampshire, and an assistant professor of mathematics at Princeton University.
However, her string of achievements did not end there. She went on to win the 2009 Blumenthal Award for the Advancement of Research in Pure Mathematics, and the 2013 Satter Prize of the American Mathematical Society. Finally, as the icing on her cake, she received the Fields Medal in 2014. She became the first Iranian woman to be elected to the US National Academy of Sciences in 2016.
Shining beacon amid atmosphere of neglect
According to UNESCO reports, Iran has the highest female to male ratio of 1.22:1.00 at primary education level in the world among sovereign nations. However, female literacy levels are sub-standard as students reach maturity. Those who do get past graduation get employed in industrial or service sectors, with a minimum number in academia or research. Within these sectors is a lack of legislative support and poor working conditions.
In a country of 97% adult literacy, most women become housewives. Demography suggests 69% female unemployment in urban areas. Against this backdrop of neglect, the Iranian Government and media finally saw a ray of optimism in Mirzakhani’s achievements.
An advocate of women’s education
While President Rouhani described her as “milestone” for Iranian women’s successes, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Ghasemi extended condolences. Reformist Azar Mansouri urged Rouhani to pick female ministers in the cabinet after he won re-election in May, as “appreciating the likes of Mirzakhani” is only possible by “establishing equal opportunities for them,” she wrote in Shargh.
Mathematicians have described Mirzakhani as possessing “fearless ambition”. Further, she has singled herself out as a pioneer in women’s education in the country. Mirzakhani had also voiced concerns about the lack of support for women in math.
In 2013 she said, “The situation of women in math is far from ideal. Balancing career and family also remains a big challenge. However, there has been a lot of progress over the years, and I am sure this trend will continue.” Mirzakhani proved to be an inspiration for women and lawmakers in Iran when she signed off on the Stanford University press release saying “I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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