Maryam Mirzakhani, first female winner of Fields Medal, has died

17 Jul 2017

Prof Maryam Mirzakhani. Image: Stanford News Service

Maryam Mirzakhani, the first ever (and to date only) female winner of mathematics’ most prestigious honour, has died at the age of 40.

Stanford University has announced the passing of pioneering mathematician Prof Maryam Mirzakhani.

The first ever female, and Iranian, recipient of the Fields Medal, the highest honour in mathematics, Mirzakhani’s death has been described as a big loss and a shock by her peers.

Mirzakhani had been ill for some time, with breast cancer spreading to her liver and bones last year after first being diagnosed in 2013, according to Stanford.

She died on Friday, 14 July.

Outstanding achievements in mathematics

Mirzakhani specialised in theoretical mathematics “that read like a foreign language by those outside of mathematics”, according to Stanford. Some of her areas of interest included: moduli spaces, Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry.

She joined Stanford in 2008, serving as professor of mathematics until her passing. It was in 2014 that Mirzakhani received the ultimate adulation in her profession.

The Fields Medal is often referred to as ‘the Nobel Prize of mathematics’ and is awarded only every four years during the International Congress of the International Mathematical Union (IMU).

The award recognises outstanding achievements in the field of mathematics in terms of existing work from young researchers and the promise of future contributions, and recipients must be under 40 years of age.

The IMU selected Mirzakhani for its top honour in recognition of her “outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces”, the organisation said at the time.

Tributes pour in

“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 Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of Stanford.

“Maryam was a brilliant mathematical theorist, and also a humble person who accepted honours 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.”

Calling her a “wonderful colleague”, Stanford’s Prof Ralph Cohen said Mirzakhani was brilliant, fearless, a great teacher and a “terrific PhD adviser”.

“Maryam embodied what being a mathematician or scientist is all about: the attempt to solve a problem that hadn’t been solved before, or to understand something that hadn’t been understood before.

“This is driven by a deep intellectual curiosity, and there is great joy and satisfaction with every bit of success. Maryam had one of the great intellects of our time, and she was a wonderful person. She will be tremendously missed.”

Stanford has revealed plans to organise a memorial service when the university is back up and running in the autumn.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic