An Iranian mathematician working in the US has won the Fields medal. And the kicker? She’s a woman. Professor Maryam Mirzakhani was recognized for her work on complex geometry.
In becoming the very first female medallist, Prof Mirzakhani – who teaches at Stanford University in California – ends what has been a long wait for the mathematics community.
Prof Dame Frances Kirwan, a member of the medal selection committee from the University of Oxford, pointed out that despite maths being viewed traditionally as “a male preserve”, women have contributed to mathematics for centuries.
She noted that around 40% of maths undergraduates in the UK are women, but that proportion declines rapidly at PhD level and beyond.
“I hope that this award will inspire lots more girls and young women, in this country and around the world, to believe in their own abilities and aim to be the Fields Medallists of the future,” Prof Kirwan said.
Including girls and young women in Iran.
Prof Mirzakhani’s seminal research concerns shapes called Riemann surfaces. These are convoluted mathematical objects that can be analysed using complex numbers – i.e. numbers with real and imaginary parts.
In particular, she has studied “moduli spaces” of these shapes, which map all of the possible geometries of a Riemann surface into their own, new space.
Prof [Caroline] Series has also known Prof Mirzakhani and her work for some time.
“I came across her a long time ago when she was a PhD student, and I was sent a preliminary draft of her thesis. And I just read it in amazement – it was beautiful.
“She took something that’s been known for a while, and she took a rather elaborate and hard to understand identity between things, and she just applied it in the most ingenious and wonderful way.”
Prof Series believes the first female Fields winner is a rare talent, who has produced unique and striking work.
“I’m quite genuine about that,” she said. “I almost never think that about bits of mathematics!”