Published: 2017-07-16 15:01
Last Updated: 2017-07-16 15:10
Almost three years since becoming the first woman to win the Field’s medal (the math’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize), Iranian 'genius' Maryam Mirzkhani has died of breast cancer at the age of 40 on Saturday.
Mirzakhani, who was a professor at Stanford University since 2008, is survived by her husband and young daughter, who once described her mother’s work as ‘paintings,’ due to the endless doodles and scribbled formulas that marked her work process.
“You have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of math,” she told one reporter.
In another interview, she said of her process: “I don’t have any particular recipe [for developing new proofs]. … It is like being lost in a jungle 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.”
Mirzakhani was born in Tehran, Iran, and initially dreamed of becoming a writer, but her affinity for solving problems and working on proofs lead her towards a life of mathematics.
In 2014 she won the Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for Mathematics, which is awarded by the International Congress of Mathematicians. The award recognised her contributions to the fields of geometry and dynamical systems, particularly in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces such as spheres.
“Maryam is gone far too soon, but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne.
“Maryam was a brilliant mathematical theorist, and also a humble person who accepted honors only with the hope that it might encourage others to follow her path. Her contributions as both a scholar and a role model are significant and enduring, and she will be dearly missed here at Stanford and around the world.”
In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani said that Mirzakhani's "doleful passing" has caused "great sorrow," state media reported.
Rouhani praised the "unprecedented brilliance of this creative scientist and modest human being, who made Iran's name resonate in the world's scientific forums, (and) was a turning point in showing the great will of Iranian women and young people on the path towards reaching the peaks of glory...in various international arenas."
In the years before her death, Mirzakhani had collaborated with Alex Eskin at the University of Chicago to answer a mathematical challenge that physicists have struggled with for a century: the trajectory of a billiard ball around a polygonal table.
The investigation developed into a 200-page paper that was hailed as “the beginning of a new era” in mathematics.
“You’re torturing yourself along the way,” Mirzakhani would offer, “but life isn’t supposed to be easy.”