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Maryam Mirzakhani, Only Woman to Win a Fields Medal, Dies at 40

“She was in the midst of doing fantastic work,” Dr. Sarnak said. “Not only did she solve many problems. In solving problems, she developed tools that are now the bread and butter of people working in the field.”

Before 2014, all 52 recipients of the Fields, which was established in 1936, were men. That year, at the International Congress of Mathematicians in South Korea, Dr. Mirzakhani was one of four Fields winners.

She was also the only Iranian to ever win the award.

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran released a statement expressing “great grief and sorrow.”

“The unparalleled excellence of the creative scientist and humble person that echoed Iran’s name in scientific circles around the world,’’ he wrote, “was a turning point in introducing Iranian women and youth on their way to conquer the summits of pride and various international stages.”

Dr. Mirzakhani’s mathematics looked at the interplay of dynamics and geometry, in some ways a more complicated version of billiards with balls bouncing eternally from side to side.

Sometimes, the path can be a repeating pattern. A simple example is a ball that hits the side of a rectangular billiards table at a right angle. It would then bounce back and forth in a line forever, never moving to any other part of the table.

But if it bounced at an angle, the trajectory would be more intricate, and would often cover the entire table. “You want to see the trajectory of the ball,” she explained in a video produced by the Simons Foundation and the International Mathematical Union to profile the 2014 Fields winners. “Would it cover all your billiard table? Can you find closed billiards paths? And interestingly enough, this is an open question in general.”

[embedded content] Maryam Mirzakhani: A Tenacious Explorer of Abstract Surfaces Video by Quanta Magazine

In work with Alex Eskin of the University of Chicago, Dr. Mirzakhani examined billiards tables of more complicated shapes, and in fact considered the dynamics of balls bouncing around all possible tables fitting a certain criteria.

It was a challenging problem that had been attacked by many prominent mathematicians including Curtis T. McMullen, her thesis adviser at Harvard and also a Fields medalist, all with limited progress. It was a particularly audacious project for someone who was just beginning her career in the mid-2000s.

More Reporting on Mathematics

Amie Wilkinson, a mathematics professor at the University of Chicago, recalled sitting in on a meeting with Dr. Mirzakhani and Dr. Eskin. Whereas Dr. Eskin tended to be pessimistic, seeing all the potential pitfalls that could scuttle a proof, Dr. Mirzakhani was the opposite. “Just pushing and pushing and pushing,” Dr. Wilkinson said. “Completely optimistic the whole time.’’

After a decade of work, they proved not the original problem they had set out on, but a slightly different problem.

“When these trajectories unwind,’’ Dr. Wilkinson said, “they reveal deep properties about numbers and geometry.”

Dr. Sarnak said that Dr. Mirzakhani wrote relatively few papers, but that she was still a game changer. “I’m sure in the long run, she would have had many more of these decisive papers,” he said.

In addition to being mathematically talented, “she was a person who thought deeply from the ground up,” he said. “That’s always the mark of someone who makes a permanent contribution.”

In an interview in 2014 with Quanta Magazine, published by the Simons Foundation, Dr. Mirzakhani, who described herself as a “slow” mathematician, acknowledged her tendency to take the harder path.

“You have to ignore low-hanging fruit, which is a little tricky,” she said. “I’m not sure if it’s the best way of doing things, actually — you’re torturing yourself along the way.”

Maryam Mirzakhani was born on May 3, 1977, in Tehran. As a child, she read voraciously and wanted to become a writer. Iran was at war with Iraq at the time, but the war ended as she entered middle school.

“I think I was the lucky generation,” she said in the Fields video, “because I was a teenager when things became more stable.”

In high school, she was a member of the Iranian team at the International Mathematical Olympiad. She won a gold medal in the olympiad in 1994, and the next year won another gold medal, with a perfect score.

After completing a bachelor’s degree at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran in 1999, she attended graduate school at Harvard. She then became a professor at Princeton before moving to Stanford in 2008.

Survivors include her husband, Jan Vondrák, who is also a mathematics professor at Stanford; and a daughter, Anahita.

Dr. Mirzakhani often attacked her math research by doodling on vast pieces of paper sprawled on the floor with equations at the edges. Her daughter described it as “painting.”

“It is like being lost in a jungle,” Dr. Mirzakhani said, “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.”

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Source: New York Times

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