The world of mathematics was agog last week with the announcement of the first woman to win the Fields medal, the most prestigious prize in that field, awarded every four years to two to four people. What was additionally noteworthy is that Maryam Mirzakhani, a professor from Stanford University is originally from Iran.
The president of Iran Hassan Rouhani has tweeted his congratulations but significantly added a photograph consisting of two images of Mirzakhani, one with the headscarf that all Iranian women are required to wear in public since the revolution in 1979, and one without it. Needless to say, the uncovered photo upset the fundamentalists.
Negar Mortazavi, a social media activist based in Washington, said on Twitter that the president’s move in sharing the photo of Mirzakhani was unprecedented. One Iranian, highlighting the controversy surrounding Rouhani’s tweet, joked: “I congratulate Maryam Mirzakhani with or without hijab but we will arrest you when you come back to Iran because of your unveiled photo.”
Many Iranians, however, praised Rouhani for the tweet. One said it showed the president was valuing her brain over her hijab. The US state department’s Persian spokesman, Alan Eyre, also congratulated Mirzakhani on Facebook.
But despite praise online, local media in Iran struggled with the coverage of Mirzakhani’s win. The state-run Iran newspaper digitally retouched her photograph to put a scarf over her head while the reformist Shargh published a sketch showing only her face.
I feel a little sorry for the other three winners this year. The news about Mirzakhani has completely overshadowed their achievements but they deserve recognition too.
Three other researchers were named Fields Medal winners at the same ceremony in South Korea. They included Martin Hairer, a 38-year-old Austrian based at Warwick University in the UK, Manjul Bhargava, a 40-year old Canadian-American at Princeton University in the US and Artur Avila, 35, a Brazilian-French researcher at the Institute of Mathematics of Jussieu in Paris.
Fields medal winners work in such advanced and esoteric areas that I usually have little idea what they actually do but the International Mathematical Union, which awards the medals, has created pretty good explanations of what the four people did.