By Iqra Naveed
The crown of success in the domain of scientific achievements has mostly been granted to men for a long time in the history. It is not because of the vague claims that men have more intellectual abilities than women but because women have been somehow hindered to achieve such deluxe milestones. The educational opportunities exposed to women have always been subdued and that is why there is a stereotypical threat that holds women back in science, markedly in math. All the previous 55 recipients of the Fields Medal have been men since its inception in 1936. But in 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani defied all such norms and won the renowned Fields Medal – an international prize that is awarded to mathematicians under age 40 for outstanding discoveries in mathematics.
Maryam Mirzakhani was born on May 3, 1977 in Tehran, Iran. She was the daughter of Ahmad Mirzakhani, an electrical engineer, and Zahra Haghighi. According to Maryam, her parents were very supportive and encouraging. Her parents instilled in her the importance of having a gratifying profession, which eventually led her to a stellar path.
When she was a kid, she had imagined herself to be a writer, always making up stories in her mind and buying random books from the bookstore. She completed her high school education from Farzanegan, a selective school under National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents (NODET). Maryam rose to international fame when she won the gold medal in 1994 International Mathematical Olympiad and achieved a perfect score of 42 in 1995 Mathematical Olympiad. She completed her undergraduate degree from Sharif University of Technology, a prominent institution of Iran for engineering and physical sciences. Then she joined Harvard University for her graduate work. Even in the United States, women were not allowed to get an Ivy League Education until 1977 no matter how brilliant they were. But in the 20th century, feminists fought for an equal right to education for the benefit of all humanity.
At Harvard, Maryam worked under the guidance of Curtis McMullen, also a Fields Medalist. Maryam was awarded her doctorate in 2004 for her ingenious thesis on “Simple Geodesics on Hyperbolic Surfaces and Volume of the Moduli Space of Curves”. It was considered her academic quantum leap. According to McMullen, she had a fearless ambition when it came to mathematics. After her stint at Princeton, she became a Professor of Mathematics in the faculty of Stanford in 2008.
Mirzakhani’s monumental work basically consisted of working on the trajectories of a billiard ball bouncing on a billiard table, covering the whole certain area. Much of her work was with Dr. Alex Eskin from University of Chicago, who described Maryam as an extremely optimistic individual. Mirzakhani tackled one of the complex problems of geodesics in history, writing a 170-page long paper on “Invariant and stationary measures for the SL(2,R) action on Moduli space” with Eskin in 2013.
In 2014, her consolidated efforts, which she spearheaded at a formative age, were landmarked by the international congress of the international mathematical union (IMU). Maryam Mirzakhani won the Fields Medal for “her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces” at International Congress of Mathematicians held in Seoul, South Korea. The award recognized her refined and highly original contribution to the fields of geometry and dynamical systems, particularly in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces. Apart from her work on behavior of geodesics in moduli space, her research topics also included Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, ergodic theory, and symplectic geometry. IMU hailed a statement saying that she embodies a rare combination of superb technical abilities, bold ambition, far-reaching vision and deep curiosity.
Fields Medal is synonymous to the “Nobel Prize of Mathematics”. But, unlike the Nobel, it is awarded to the most distinguished mathematicians in the world by the International Mathematical Union (IMU) only every four years. Canadian mathematician John Charles Field first came up with this auspicious idea in 1932. It was implemented in 1936 at the International Congress of Mathematics in Toronto.
In 2005, Maryam married Jan Vondrak, a Czech theoretical computer scientist and applied mathematician, currently a professor at Stanford University. They have a 6-year old daughter together named Anahita.
In 2013 an year before this award, tragedy struck Mirzakhani’s life when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, eventually spreading to her liver and bones. This prodigy could not shield herself from the devastating disease and died in July 2017 at Stanford Hospital at the age of 40. On 14th July, the field of mathematics and the scientific community lost an intellectual asset, making driveway for young researchers for eternity, regardless of gender discrimination. She was a paragon for not only thousands of girls worldwide but for boys too. Her soul will always breeze in her work on spatial moduli curves, acting as a strong catalyst for the next generation.
“She belonged to all humanity regardless of gender and nationality,” said Cumrun Vafa, a professor of Physics at Harvard University.
Hazhir Rahmandad, an Iranian scientist and professor of System Dynamics at MIT said:
"Her death was one of the most painful events of my life. Mirzakhani’s fusion of literature and mathematics to better understand the world made her truly remarkable.”
About the Author:
Iqra Naveed is a sophomore in computer engineering at the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore. She has recently developed interest in science communication and aims at bridging the gap between science and art. She is interested in undertaking science-art projects. Her hobbies include painting, sketching, reading and playing the guitar.
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