Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian mathematician who was the only woman ever to win a Fields Medal, the most prestigious honor in mathematics, died on Friday. She was 40.
The cause was breast cancer, said Stanford University, where she was a professor. The university did not say where she died.
Her death is “a big loss and shock to the mathematical community worldwide,” said Peter C. Sarnak, a mathematician at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study.
The Fields Medal, established in 1936, is often described as the Nobel Prizeof mathematics. But unlike the Nobels, the Fields are bestowed only on people aged 40 or younger, not just to honor their accomplishments but also to predict future mathematical triumphs. The Fields are awarded every four years, with up to four mathematicians chosen at a time.
“She was in the midst of doing fantastic work,” Dr. Sarnak said. “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.”
Dr. Mirzakhani was one of four Fields winners in 2014, at the International Congress of Mathematicians in South Korea. Until then, all 52 recipients had been men. She was also the only Iranian ever to win the award.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran released a statement expressing “great grief and sorrow.”
He wrote, “The unparalleled excellence of the creative scientist and humble person that echoed Iran’s name in scientific circles around the world was a turning point in introducing Iranian women and youth on their way to conquer the summits of pride and various international stages.”
Dr. Mirzakhani’s mathematics looked at the interplay of dynamics and geometry, in some ways a more complicated version of billiards, with balls bouncing from one side to another of a rectangular billiards table eternally.
A ball’s path can sometimes be a repeating pattern. A simple example is a ball that hits a side at a right angle. It would then bounce back and forth in a line forever, never moving to any other part of the table.
But if a ball bounced at an angle, its trajectory would be more intricate, often covering the entire table.
“You want to see the trajectory of the ball,” Dr. Mirzakhani explained in a video produced by the Simons Foundation and the International Mathematical Union to profile the 2014 Fields winners. “Would it cover all your billiard table? Can you find closed billiards paths? And interestingly enough, this is an open question in general.”
In work with Alex Eskin of the University of Chicago, Dr. Mirzakhani examined billiards tables of more complicated shapes, and in fact considered the dynamics of balls bouncing around all possible tables that fit certain criteria.
It was a challenging problem that had been attacked by many prominent mathematicians. That included Curtis T. McMullen, her thesis adviser at Harvard and also a Fields medalist, who had solved a special case. But no one had a good idea of the path toward a more encompassing solution.
Amie Wilkinson, a mathematics professor at the University of Chicago, recalled sitting in on a meeting with Dr. Mirzakhani and Dr. Eskin. Whereas Dr. Eskin tended to be pessimistic, seeing all the potential pitfalls that could scuttle a proof, Dr. Mirzakhani was the opposite.
“Just pushing and pushing and pushing,” Dr. Wilkinson said. “Completely optimistic the whole time.’’
After a decade of work, Dr. Mirzakhani and Dr. Eskin proved not the original problem that they had set out to solve but a slightly different one.
“When these trajectories unwind,’’ Dr. Wilkinson said, “they reveal deep properties about numbers and geometry.”
Dr. Sarnak said that though Dr. Mirzakhani wrote relatively few papers, she was still a game changer. “I’m sure in the long run, she would have had many more of these decisive papers,” he said.
In addition to being mathematically talented, “she was a person who thought deeply from the ground up,” he said.
“That’s always the mark of someone who makes a permanent contribution,” he added.
In an interview in 2014 with Quanta Magazine, published by the Simons Foundation, Dr. Mirzakhani, who described herself as a “slow” mathematician, acknowledged her tendency to take the harder path.
“You have to ignore low-hanging fruit, which is a little tricky,” she said. “I’m not sure if it’s the best way of doing things, actually — you’re torturing yourself along the way.”
Maryam Mirzakhani was born on May 3, 1977, in Tehran. As a child, she read voraciously and wanted to become a writer. Iran was at war with Iraq at the time, but the war ended as she entered middle school.
“I think I was the lucky generation,” she said in the Fields video, “because I was a teenager when things became more stable.”
In high school, she was a member of the Iranian team at the International Mathematical Olympiad. She won a gold medal in the olympiad in 1994, and the next year won another gold medal, with a perfect score.
After completing a bachelor’s degree at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran in 1999, she attended graduate school at Harvard, completing her doctorate in 2004. She then became a professor at Princeton before moving to Stanford in 2008.
Survivors include her husband, Jan Vondrák, who is also a mathematics professor at Stanford, and a daughter, Anahita.
Dr. Mirzakhani often dived into her math research by doodling on vast pieces of paper sprawled on the floor, with equations at the edges. Her daughter described it as “painting.”
“It is like being lost in a jungle,” Dr. Mirzakhani 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.”
An Iranian mathematician is the first woman ever to receive a Fields Medal, often considered to be mathematics’ equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
The recipient, Maryam Mirzakhani, a professor at Stanford, was one of four winners honored on Wednesday at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul, South Korea.
The Fields Medal is given every four years, and several can be awarded at once. The other recipients this year are Artur Avila of the National Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics in Brazil and the National Center for Scientific Research in France; Manjul Bhargava of Princeton University; and Martin Hairer of the University of Warwick in England.
The 52 medalists from previous years were all men.
“This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians,” Dr. Mirzakhani was quoted as saying in a Stanford news release on Tuesday. “I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”
Ingrid Daubechies, a professor of mathematics at Duke and president of the International Mathematical Union, called the news “a great joy” in an email.
“All researchers in mathematics will tell you that there is no difference between the math done by a woman or a man, and of course the decision of the Fields Medal committee is based only on the results of each candidate,” she wrote. “That said, I bet the vast majority of the mathematicians in the world will be happy that it will no longer be possible to say that ‘the Fields Medal has always been awarded only to men.’ ”
Much of the research by Dr. Mirzakhani, who was born in Tehran in 1977, has involved the behavior of dynamical systems. There are no exact mathematical solutions for many dynamical systems, even simple ones.
“What Maryam discovered is that in another regime, the dynamical orbits are tightly constrained to follow algebraic laws,” said Curtis T. McMullen, a professor at Harvard who was Dr. Mirzakhani’s doctoral adviser. “These dynamical systems describe surfaces with many handles, like pretzels, whose shape is evolving over time by twisting and stretching in a precise way. They are related to billiards on tables that are not rectangular but still polygonal, like the regular octagon.”
Dr. Avila, 35, investigated a different area of dynamical systems, including an understanding of fractals. Dr. Bhargava, 40, was recognized for new methods in the geometry of numbers, especially prime numbers, and Dr. Hairer, 38, made advances in the study of the effect of random noise on partial differential equations, capturing the effect of turbulence on ocean currents or the flow of air around airplane wings.
While women have reached parity in many academic fields, mathematics is still dominated by men, who earn about 70 percent of the doctoral degrees. The disparity is even more striking at the highest echelons. Since 2003, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has awarded the Abel Prize, recognizing outstanding mathematicians with a monetary award of about $1 million; all 14 recipients so far are men. No woman has won the Wolf Prize in Mathematics, another prestigious award.
The Fields Medal was conceived by John Charles Fields, a Canadian mathematician, “in recognition of work already done” and as “an encouragement for further achievement.” Judges have interpreted the terms of the Fields trust to mean that the award should usually be limited to mathematicians age 40 or younger.
Dr. McMullen, himself a Fields medalist, did not speculate on why it had taken so long for a woman to be recognized. “I would prefer to look forward and celebrate this occasion,” he said, “and see it as a sign of positive trends in society and in science.”
Maryam Mirzakhani (Persian: مریم میرزاخانی; 3 May 1977 – 14 July 2017) was an Iranian mathematician and a professor of mathematics at Stanford University. Her research topics include Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, ergodic theory, and symplectic geometry.
On 13 August 2014, Mirzakhani became both the first woman and the first Iranian honored with the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics. The award committee cited her work in "the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces".
On 14 July 2017 Mirzakhani passed away at the age of 40, after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Early life and education
Mirzakhani was born on 3 May 1977 in Tehran, Iran. She attended Farzanegan School there, part of the National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents.
In 1994, Mirzakhani achieved the gold medal level in the International Mathematical Olympiad, the first female Iranian student to do so. In the 1995 International Mathematical Olympiad, she became the first Iranian student to achieve a perfect score and to win two gold medals.
She obtained her BSc in mathematics (1999) from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. She went to the United States for graduate work, earning a PhD from Harvard University in 2004, where she worked under the supervision of the Fields Medalist Curtis McMullen.
Mirzakhani was a 2004 research fellow of the Clay Mathematics Institute and a professor at Princeton University. In 2008 she became a professor at Stanford University.
Mirzakhani made several contributions to the theory of moduli spaces of Riemann surfaces. In her early work, Mirzakhani discovered a formula expressing the volume of a moduli space with a given genus as a polynomial in the number of boundary components. This led her to obtain a new proof for the formula discovered by Edward Witten and Maxim Kontsevichon the intersection numbers of tautological classes on moduli space, as well as an asymptotic formula for the growth of the number of simple closed geodesics on a compact hyperbolic surface, generalizing the theorem of the three geodesics for spherical surfaces. Her subsequent work focused on Teichmüller dynamics of moduli space. In particular, she was able to prove the long-standing conjecture that William Thurston's earthquake flow on Teichmüller space is ergodic.
Most recently as of 2014, with Alex Eskin and with input from Amir Mohammadi, Mirzakhani proved that complex geodesics and their closures in moduli space are surprisingly regular, rather than irregular or fractal. The closures of complex geodesics are algebraic objects defined in terms of polynomials and therefore they have certain rigidity properties, which is analogous to a celebrated result that Marina Ratner arrived at during the 1990s. The International Mathematical Union said in its press release that, "It is astounding to find that the rigidity in homogeneous spaces has an echo in the inhomogeneous world of moduli space."
Mirzakhani was awarded the Fields Medal in 2014 for "her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces".The award was made in Seoul at the International Congress of Mathematicians on 13 August.
At the time of the award, Jordan Ellenberg explained her research to a popular audience:
In 2014, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran congratulated her for winning the topmost world mathematics prize.
Mirzakhani was married to Jan Vondrák, a Czech theoretical computer scientist and applied mathematician who is an associate professor at Stanford University;their daughter is named Anahita.
Mirzakhani described herself as a "slow" mathematician, saying that
To solve problems, Mirzakhani would draw doodles on sheets of paper, and write mathematical formulas around the drawings. Her daughter described her mother's work as "painting".
Mirzakhani was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. After four years, it spread to her bone marrow. Mirzakhani died from breast cancer on 14 July 2017 at the age of 40.
Awards and honors
- IPM Fellowship, Tehran, Iran, 1995–99
- Merit fellowship Harvard University, 2003
- Harvard Junior Fellowship Harvard University, 2003
- Clay Mathematics Institute Research Fellow 2004
- AMS Blumenthal Award 2009
- Invited to talk at the International Congress of Mathematicians in 2010, on the topic of "Topology and Dynamical Systems & ODE"
- The 2013 AMS Ruth Lyttle Satter Prize in Mathematics. "Presented every two years by the American Mathematical Society, the Satter Prize recognizes an outstanding contribution to mathematics research by a woman in the preceding six years. The prize was awarded on 10 January 2013, at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Diego."
- Named one of Nature magazine's ten "people who mattered" of 2014.
- Clay Research Award 2014
- Plenary speaker at the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM 2014)
- Fields Medal 2014
- Elected foreign associate to the French Academy of Science in 2015
- Elected to the American Philosophical Society in 2015.
- National Academy of Sciences 2016
- Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017.