Maryam Mirzakhani, a math genius who was the first and only woman to ever win the prestigious Fields Award, died this past Friday. The Iranian mathematician won the “Nobel Prize” of mathematics for her “sophisticated and highly original” contributions to geometry and dynamical systems, which has potential implications in physics, engineering, material sciences; within mathematics, it could affect the study of prime numbers and cryptography. “This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians,” Maryam said in a statement when she won the award in 2014. “I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”
Born in Tehran, Maryam came of age after the Iran-Iraq war and originally dreamed of becoming a writer. In high school, however, she became fascinated by math, and joined Iran’s Math Olympiad team. She earned a gold medal two years in a row, and achieved a perfect score in her second year.
Upon beginning graduate school at Harvard, she became fascinated with hyperbolic geometry, which describes doughnut-shaped surfaces with two or more holes. These curved surfaces only exist in the abstract, however, as they can’t be constructed in the real world; the measurement of these angles and distances are governed by a particular set of equations. Maryam’s “masterpiece” dissertation answered two longstanding problems in hyperbolic geometry, a feat that led to papers in each of the top three mathematics journals. Solving either of these problems “would have been an event,” said Benson Farb, a University of Chicago mathematician. “…A majority of mathematicians will never produce work as good, and that’s what she did in her thesis.”
Recently, Maryam collaborated with UChicago mathematician Alex Eskin to address a seemingly simple challenge faced by mathematicians and physicists for years: understanding the motion of a billiard ball as it bounces from one side to another of a polygonal table.
“It is fun — it’s like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case,” says Maryam of her work. She joined the faculty at Stanford University in 2008, and died at Stanford Hospital after a long battle with breast cancer.