Maryam Mirzakhani, the only women ever to have won the Fields Medal, the highest recognition in math, just died after a long battle with cancer. The Stanford mathematics professor was 40 years old at the time of her passing this Saturday.

Mirzakhani, an accomplished Iranian mathematician, won the Fields Medal, which some consider math’s equivalent of a Nobel Prize, in 2014 for her work on complex geometry and dynamical systems.

Image credit: Alchetron
Image credit: Alchetron

The Stanford professor specialized in theoretical mathematics and studied complex theories like moduli spaces, hyperbolic geometry, Teichmüller theory, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry.

Iranian mathematician who became the first woman to win Fields Medal dies at 40

Her work with theoretical mathematics allowed her to pursue her interest in describing the geometric and dynamic complexities of curved surfaces, such as spheres, doughnut shapes, and amoebas, in thorough detail.

Experts believe that while Mirzakhani’s lifetime work was mostly theoretical in essence, it could have impacts regarding theoretical physics of how the universe came to exist, as it could help inform quantum field theory, material science and secondary applications to engineering. In mathematics, her work has implications for the study of prime numbers and cryptography.

She started working as a professor of mathematics at Stanford University in 2008. The university issued a press release and Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne dedicated a few words to her.

“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 Tessier-Lavigne. “Maryam was a brilliant mathematical theorist, and also a humble person who accepted honors 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.”

Image credit: WIRED Science Youtube Channel
Image credit: WIRED Science Youtube Channel

Mirzakhani was born in Teran and graduated college at Sharif University before coming to the U.S. to attend graduate school at Harvard University. NPR reported that she once said she wanted to be a writer, but her passion for mathematics eventually led her to study the complex science.

“It is fun- it’s like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case,” said Mirzakhani in 2014 after winning the Fields Medal, reported NPR. “I felt that this was something I could do, and I wanted to pursue this path.”

Upon her arrival to Harvard, she was already an accomplished mathematician, as she had won several gold medals in the International Mathematical Olympiad in the mid-1990s. In fact, she started breaking molds early in life, as in that occasion she was the first girl ever named to Iran’s team.

Mirzakhani: ‘You have to spend energy and effort to see the beauty of math’

Mirzakhani was married to Jan Vondrák, with whom she had a daughter, Anahita. The Fields Medal recipient once said her daughter referred to her work as “painting” because of the drawings and doodles she did when solving complex math problems.

Former Iranian-American NASA scientist Firouz Naderi tweeted that a light was turned off today, far too soon. He also posted a time-lapse video of her presiding over a lecture hall and filling chalkboards with an explanation. “Painting,” as her daughter would say.

Mirzakhani described herself as a “slow” mathematician, while her colleagues described her as resolute, ambitious and fearless in the face of complicated problems others wouldn’t tackle, said Stanford.

Image credit: Stanford University
Image credit: Stanford University

She once told a reporter that you have to spend energy and effort to see the beauty of math. Mirzakhani described her process when tackling a problem once in another interview.

“I don’t have any particular recipe [for developing new proofs]… It is like being lost in a jungle 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.”

Mizrakhani fought breast cancer for four years

In 2004 she wrote a dissertation that caused Curtis McMullen, fellow Fields Medal winner at Harvard University, to describe her as filled with fearless ambition. In her dissertation, she solved two long-standing mathematic problems.

Benson Farb, a mathematician at the University of Chicago, said the majority of mathematicians will ever produce something as good as what Mirzakhani did in that dissertation.

After her doctorate at Harvard University, she began working as an assistant professor at Princeton University and as a researcher at the Clay Mathematics Institute. Then, she joined Stanford University and worked there until her death.

Mirzakhani also worked alongside Alex Eskin at the University of Chicago to tackle a mathematical challenge that physicists have struggled with for decades: the trajectory of a billiards ball around a polygonal table. Her work with that problem was described as the beginning of a new era in mathematics, and a “titanic work.”

Mirzakhani was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago, and she fought the disease until it eventually spread to her bone marrow.

Source: Stanford University