The greatest honor in mathematics, the Fields Medal, was awarded last month for the first time to an academic from Iran and, not incidentally, the first woman. Despite deep-seated prejudice and negligence in her home country and culture — challenges many in the West can only begin to imagine – Maryam Mirzakhani was so honored.
The International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics, also known as the Fields Medal, is awarded once every four years to mathematicians 40 years of age or less at the International Congress of the International Mathematical Union. The Fields Medal represents the pinnacle of mathematics achievement. The Abel Prize awarded by the King of Norway and the Fields Medal are together known as the “mathematician’s Nobel Prize.” In an occupational field one newspaper described as “one of the last bastions of male dominance,” female Stanford professor Maryam Mirzakhani was nevertheless presented with the award in Seoul, South Korea last week.
Advancements in science and mathematics have certainly been deprived over the decades because of the lack of women in its highest echelons. The first Fields Medal was presented in 1950 and, in its 78 year history, has been awarded only to men. Speaking about the Medal, Ramin Takloo, a math professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, said that, in the past, even the most deserving of candidates have been brushed aside when “even the slightest bias against women” is present.
Mirzakhani received her undergraduate education at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran and a doctorate at Harvard University, where her mentor was Curtis McMullen, another Fields Medal recipient. Mirzakhani specializes in pure mathematics, involving conceptual and abstract math and how it relates to theories in physics. She received the Medal specifically for her work describing curved surfaces and their symmetry, like spheres.
Simultaneous with Maryam Mirzakhani’s rise through the ranks of academia, she surely has endured the severe constraints imposed on women in Iran. Although she is highly educated, enjoys a high social standing and is a brilliant talent, the barriers against her success have surely been daunting. Iranian law states that a woman is one-half that of a man. Suffrage has been an ongoing effort for years in Iran, with women organizing to secure rights in the workplace and divorce, the right to travel and the custody of children. Such rights are actually allowed right now, but only when authorized by fathers or husbands.
Mirzakhani clearly pushed through such hardships, and more. In 1997, a few days before Nowruz (the Iranian new year in March) a bus returning from a math competition at the University of Ahvaz crashed, killing six students. With her entire future ahead of her, Mirzakhani was a lucky survivor.
Even then, Mirzakhani was a star amongst Iranian academics. She had participated in a program for talented students, launching her to the National Team in the Mathematics Olympiad. She became the first Iranian girl to win the mathematics gold medal and the first (and only) to win it twice. Despite her genius, one of Mirzakhani’s classmates said that she never believed a career in mathematics would be possible.
Mirzakhani of Iran got past the barrier of disbelief and, by the time she landed at Harvard, had obtained a reputation for “fearless ambition,” according to her advisor, Fields Medalist Kurt McMullen. Even if Maryam Mirzakhani had never received Mathematics’ greatest honor, Ramin Takloo says the woman would still be “one of the great mathematicians of our time.”
Opinion by Gregory Baskin