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Sunday, January 07, 2018

Maryam Mirzakhani: Remembering a brilliant mathematician who inspired a world of possibilities | ABC Online - Science

Photo: Nalini Joshi
"Australian mathematician professor Nalini Joshi, ARC Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow in Mathematics at the University of Sydney. A spoken version of this piece will be broadcast on Ockham's Razor on ABC RN on Sunday 21 January, pays a personal tribute to the life and legacy of Maryam Mirzakhani, the first female winner of the Fields Medal, who died in 2017."

Maryam Mirzakhani, a professor of mathematics at Stanford University, died of breast cancer in July.
Photo: Supplied - Stanford University

On 16 June 2014, I received an email from the President of the International Mathematical Union.

The subject of the email was a question "Will you be at ICM?" and the body of the email consisted of just two lines: "And will you have some disposable time? I have a favour to ask ... Best, Ingrid."

The sender was Professor Ingrid Daubechies and ICM is the International Mathematical Congress, which is held every four years. The most anticipated event at each ICM is the award of the Fields Medal, arguably the most celebrated prize in mathematics. In 2014, the ICM was to be held in Seoul, Korea.

When I answered Ingrid's email, I learnt that I was to be part of a small group of female mathematicians entrusted with a special job in Seoul, involving such amazing news that it set a bell ringing in my heart — a bell that is still ringing today.

This group learnt that a Fields medal was to be awarded to a female mathematician for the first time in its long and luminous history. We were asked to be "on call" to provide support and help for the recipient at ICM.

The prestigious medal, often dubbed the Nobel Prize for mathematics, is awarded to recognise extraordinary results in mathematics by a mathematician under the age of 40.

Before that news arrived in my inbox, 52 Fields medals had been awarded, all of them to men.
Now, the established ranks of the mathematical world were going to acknowledge not only that women can do maths, but that their achievements can be as brilliant as the highest achievements ever recognised in recorded mathematical history.

Photo: Maryam Mirzakhani, third from the right, with Iranian school students departing for the 1995 Maths Olympiad in Canada

One of the four brilliant mathematicians who were awarded Fields medals at the 2014 ICM was Maryam Mirzakhani, who was born and educated in Iran, and completed a PhD in mathematics at Harvard University. Behind that brief outline, there was an exceptional person with an astonishing history.

Iran admitted girls to their International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO) team for the very first time in 1994. The contest is difficult, involving six problems, each worth seven marks and distributed over two consecutive days. Maryam was a member of that first team to include girls. 

Maryam did not just participate; her performance was spectacular. She dropped only one mark in 1994, and in the next year, she achieved a perfect score. She was the first Iranian ever to have been awarded two gold medals and a perfect score in the IMO.

An observer who witnessed the IMO medal ceremonies in 1994 and 1995 wrote to me that: "The two girls in the Iranian team were completely covered in black — except for their feet. 

When the Iranians went to collect their medals, one had to infer what was underneath from the confident way the girls' trainers strode visibly across the stage. It was very, very impressive — if a rather unusual way to witness/infer youthful ambition."

Much later, that drive and ambition led Maryam to move to the US to pursue graduate study in Mathematics at Harvard University, where her PhD advisor, Curtis McMullen, also a Fields medallist, said she showed "determination and relentless questioning."

Most research mathematicians spend their working lives as highly accomplished technical specialists working within one subfield of mathematics, much like a performer might interpret and play glorious music on just one instrument.

Source: ABC Online