Maryam Mirzakhani

Maryam Mirzakhani was an Iranian mathematician and professor of mathematics at Stanford University. Maryam was born in 1977 in Tehran, Iran. As a child she was put into the Iranian Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents program at Tehran Farzanegan School. She won the gold medal at the Iranian National Olympiad her junior and senior year of high school. This allowed her to bypass national college entrance exams. Maryam also won a gold medal in 1994 at the International Mathematical Olympiad in Hong Kong. She was the first Iranian women to achieve this, scoring 41 out of 42 points. In 1995 Maryam became the first Iranian to win two gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad in Toronto. She achieved a perfect score. Along with her friend, Roya Beheshti Zavareh, Maryam competed in the National Iranian Mathematical Olympiad in 1995, and they became the first Iranian women to win gold and silver medals.

Maryam Mirzakhani and her friend Roya Zavareh were then invited to a conference for genius students and former Olympiad winners. They boarded a bus in Ahvaz to travel to Tehran. The bus got into an accident and fell off of a cliff. Seven passengers were killed in this national tragedy, but Maryam and Roya survived. In 1999, the pair published a book, Elementary Number Theory, Challenging Problems. 

In 1999 Mirzakhani also received her bachelor of science in mathematics from the Sharif University of Technology. During her undergraduate studies she received recognition for her development of a simple proof for one of Axel Schur’s theorems from the American Mathematical Society. She moved to the United States for her graduate work, receiving her PhD. from Harvard University in 2004. During her studies in America Maryam took her class notes in Persian. 

In 2004 Maryam Mirzakhani became a Clay Mathematics Institute fellow as well as a professor at Princeton. She married Jan Vondrák, an applied mathematician, theoretical computer scientist, and musician, who was a professor at Stanford. They had one daughter together. In 2009 she became a professor of mathematics at Stanford. 

Throughout her career Mirzakhani researched and made substantial contributions to the theory of moduli spaces of Riemann surfaces, and the Teichmüller dynamics of moduli space. In 2014 Maryam Mirzakhani was awarded the Fields Medal for “her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces”. Her research contributions were explained to the award reception audience: 

“[Her] work expertly blends dynamics with geometry. Among other things, she studies billiards. But now, in a move very characteristic of modern mathematics, it gets kind of meta: She considers not just one billiard table, but the universe of all possible billiard tables. And the kind of dynamics she studies doesn’t directly concern the motion of the billiards on the table, but instead a transformation of the billiard table itself, which is changing its shape in a rule-governed way; if you like, the table itself moves like a strange planet around the universe of all possible tables … This isn’t the kind of thing you do to win at pool, but it’s the kind of thing you do to win a Fields Medal. And it’s what you need to do in order to expose the dynamics at the heart of geometry; for there’s no question that they’re there.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani congratulated her on winning the highest mathematical prize in the world. 

Mirzakhani has an Erdős number of 3. The Erdős number describes the “collaborative distance” between mathematician Paul Erdős and another person, as measured by their authorship of mathematical papers. The number describes the amount of “hops” needed to connect the author of a paper with the prolific late mathematician Paul Erdős. An author’s Erdős number is 1 if he has co-authored a paper with Erdős, 2 if he has co-authored a paper with someone who has co-authored a paper with Erdős, etc. Albert Einstein, for example, has an Erdős number of 2. 

Maryam Mirzakhani was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. In 2016 she became the first Iranian woman to be accepted as a member of the National Academy of Sciences. She died in 2017 at the age of 40. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani honored her legacy by stating:

“The unprecedented brilliance of this creative scientist and modest human being, who made Iran’s name resonate in the world’s scientific forums, was a turning point in showing the great will of Iranian women and young people on the path towards reaching the peaks of glory and in various international arenas.” The International Council of Science declared her birthday, 12 May, to be International Women in Mathematics Day. There are math libraries that have been named after her internationally, as well as a society for women studying mathematics at Oxford. In 2018 a satellite was launched that was named in her honor. In 2020 there was a film released about her: Secrets of the Surface: The Mathematical Vision of Maryam Mirzakhani. There are several scholarships and prizes named after her for women researching mathematics and science.

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