Modern Mathematicians: Maryam Mirzakhani

Maryam MirzakhaniMaryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian mathematician at Stanford University, became the first women to win the Field’s Medal in 2014. The Field’s Medal is the most prestigious prize in mathematics (I like to refer to it as the ‘Nobel Prize’ of mathematics), and was established in 1936.

Although as a young child Mirzakhani’s dream was to become a writer, she recalls her earliest memory of mathematics in an interview with The Guardian:

My first memory of mathematics is probably the time that he told me about the problem of adding numbers from 1 to 100… The solution was quite fascinating for me. That was the first time I enjoyed a beautiful solution, though I couldn’t find it myself.

I found this fascinating as I can truly relate to what Mirzakhani is saying. A question, which may appear difficult to solve, may have a simple solution, only found using mathematical tools. Such simple solutions hold such elegance and beauty to me, which I feel is common amongst those who love maths.

My favourite quote by Mirzakhani from her interview with The Guardian is “the more I spent time on mathematics, the more excited I became”, as I feel that Mirzakhani is describing something magical: the more you know about mathematics and the more tools you have to solve problems, the more intriguing the questions become. I have found this whilst studying my A-Levels, the more advanced the material becomes, the more I engage with it and develop a deep love for mathematics.

Mirzakhani has given Maryam Mirzakhani winning Fields Medalmany original contributions to the fields of geometry and dynamical systems, particularly in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces, such as spheres, the surfaces of doughnuts and of hyperbolic objects. Although her work is considered ‘pure mathematics’ and is mostly theoretical, it could impact the theoretical physics of how the universe came to exist and, as it could inform quantum field theory, impact engineering and material science. Within mathematics, it has implications for the study of prime numbers and cryptography.

Although Mirzakhani’s work is too complex for me to understand, this video summarises it nicely and I would highly recommend you watch it.

Finally, the fact that she was the first woman awarded the Field’s Medal makes her a great role model for any aspiring women mathematicians and scientists. Personally, it is women like her that truly encourage me to continue to pursue mathematics as a career, despite the great gender imbalance (according to The Washington Post, just 9% of tenure-track positions in math are held by women!). However, slowly the numbers are rising, and so to mirror this, I think its very important to have these strong women role models in STEM subjects.

This is a great honour. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians. I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.

Let me know what other modern mathematicians I should research! M x

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