2017 has taken another genius from us, and this one hit me pretty hard. Dr. Maryam Mirzakhai died this week from breast cancer at only 40 years old.
Dr. Maryam Mirzakhai made the news a few years ago when she became the first woman to win the Fields Medal, which is known as the Nobel Prize for mathematics.
The Fields is given every four years to up to four people, and only mathematicians younger than 40 are eligible. The idea is to give up-and-coming mathematicians recognition, with the belief that they will continue to do amazing things for the rest of their career.
Dr. Mirzakhai was born in Tehran, Iran, on May 3 1977. By her own account, she was lucky to grow up in a time of relative peace and prosperity in her country. As a kid she was a voracious reader and wanted to be a writer, which makes me can’t help but wonder if she ever read one of my favorite books: Reading Lolita in Tehran. She said that she wasn’t very good at math in school, which I don’t particularly believe as she was the first girl on Iran’s International Mathematical Olympiad, and took home three gold medals.
After graduating from Sharif University in Tehran, she headed to America and got her Ph.D. at Harvard. She took notes in both English and Farsi. I’m always impressed by people who get a Ph.D. in a language that is not their first. Her thesis solved two longstanding mathematical problems when even just one would have been amazing. She became a professor at Princeton and later moved to Stanford where she did most of her work.
Her write-up from Princeton says it best, “Mirzakhani specialized in theoretical mathematics that read like a foreign language by those outside of mathematics: moduli spaces, Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry.” I’ve studied a few these topics casually for a couple years, and they still do not make any sense to me, so I’m not going to even attempt to explain them here. If you are interested in her work, there are a few very helpful videos about it here and here, where she explains it herself.
One of her last projects was a more complicated version of figuring out what happens to a pool ball if it’s hit at weird angles in a pool table that has an arbitrary number of sides, like that DVD screensaver that is so satisfying to watch. It had been an open question in math about exactly what happens to these pool balls. Still, she solved this problem while battling breast cancer.
One of the reasons she liked math so much is because she saw it as solving a puzzle. That’s the same reason that I like math. She was someone I looked up to. According to Terry Tao, a prominent mathematician, “Maryam was an amazing mathematician and also a wonderful and humble human being, who was at the peak of her powers. Today was a huge loss for Maryam’s family and friends, as well as for mathematics.”