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The First Woman to Win Math's Highest Award Dies at 40

July 15, 2017 11:25 PM
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The First Woman to Win Math's Highest Award Dies at 40

Maryam Mirzakhani’s work may change the future understanding of how the universe was formed.

Mirzakhani was born in Tehran, and in 1994 she became the first female to compete with Iran’s International Mathematical Olympiad team. That year she won a gold medal, and the following year she won two. After she graduated from university, she left her home country for the U.S., where she studied at Harvard University. For her dissertation at the university she finished two problems that had never before been solved. “The majority of mathematicians will never produce something as good,” Benson Farb, a mathematician at the University of Chicago said. “And that’s what she did in her thesis.”

More recently, her work focused on the trajectory of a billiards ball going round a polygonal table, a problem that has stumped mathematicians for a century. That work inspired a lengthy paper that when published in 2013 was called “the beginning of a new era” in mathematics. Mirzakhani described her method for solving problems like writing a novel with “different characters, and you are getting to know them better. Things evolve, and then you look back at a character, and it’s completely different from your first impression.”

On Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Mirzakhani’s death would cause “great sorrow” for the country, and called her an “eminent Iranian.”

Both in Iran and and internationally, Mirzakhani became a heroic figure for women in the sciences. Colleagues described her as very modest, and hesitant to take credit. But when she won the Fields Medal in 2014 she acknowledged her impact by saying, “I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians.”


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