The Fields Medal is a mathematics award honoring a few mathematicians, traditionally under the age of 40, every four years for outstanding and/or highly influential research. It has been referred to as the Nobel Prize of mathematics. This year was the first time that a woman has ever received the honor in the 78 years that it has been awarded.

Photo courtesy of Stanford News

Stanford’s Professor Maryam Mirzakhani deals with dynamics — the abstract theory of motion and change over time — which is a young research area that has only been tapped into in the past 100 years. But it has certainly been rising in popularity for several years with a number of mathematicians in this field being recognized for their work. Dynamics is a complex math, working to find the system in how the universe, and everything in it, works. Its formulas dictate orbital patterns with seemingly simple rules that quickly become nearly incomprehensible to the untrained. Mirzakhani, specifically, finds the dynamics within geometry.

As a girl growing up in Iran, Mirzakhani’s enthusiasm was actually not for math, but for literature. She would buy books for herself and dream of being a writer. It was not until later that her brother got her interested in science. He told her about Carl Friedrich Gauss, a German mathematician who had figured out a way to add up all of the numbers from 1 to 100 together in mere seconds (5,050, for those wondering). She said it was the first time she enjoyed the beauty of the solution, even though she had not come to it herself.

Then, with just a germ of interest and the encouragement from her school principal, Mirzakhani began to compete in international math Olympiads and won the gold in 1994 and 1995. As a student at Sharif University, she discovered that the more she learned of the subject, the more exciting it became. Then, at Harvard, she had the opportunity to work with Curt McCullen, a (now fellow) Fields medalist, and was intrigued by how “simple and elegant” he made the math seem.

In a 2008 interview, she said, “I can see that without being excited, mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers.” She admits that she did not do well in math in school simply from lack of interest. Obviously, finding those who helped shed new light on the subject opened her eyes to new and exciting opportunities.

The field of mathematics has predominantly been a male-dominated one, so to have a woman receive the world’s most prestigious award for her contributions is huge. Field medalist Sir Tim Gowers said, “I am thrilled that this day has finally come. Although women have contributed to mathematics at the highest level for a long time, this fact has not been visible to the general public. I hope that the existence of a female Fields medalist, who will surely be the first of many, will put to bed many myths about women and mathematics, and encourage more young women to think of mathematical research as a possible career.”

It is thrilling that Maryam Mirzakhani is being recognized for the wonderful work that she’s doing; and, it is even more exciting to know that her feats will not go unnoticed by young girls going into the field. She is now a beacon of what can be accomplished. May she continue to inspire more women to do their best in whatever their field may be.

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