Star to Guiding Star: Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017)

February 5, 2021

Iranian Mathematician. First and to date, the only woman recipient of Fields Medal (2014). Professor of Mathematics, Stanford University.

Maryam Mirzakhani

Image Credit: AP

“Maryam is gone far too soon, but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science.”

— Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Stanford President

A reason for every woman to believe that unconquered summits exist on all mountains.

Her life was a flash. And that sums up the brilliance of it all. An unassuming genius, professor Maryam Mirzakhani defied numbers. Be it digits and their roundabout-bent-over calculation over curved surfaces or in the mastery over geometry, Mirzakhani decoded the Math in problems that apparently did not exist. None ever saw the inherent abstract shapes and their myriad possibilities… leave alone binding it all in a formula. That’s the world Mirzakhani alone ruled.


Early Life:

“I grew up in a family with three siblings. My parents were always very supportive and encouraging. It was important for them that we have meaningful and satisfying professions, but they didn’t care as much about success and achievement. In many ways, it was a great environment for me, though these were hard times during the Iran-Iraq war. My older brother was the person who got me interested in science in general. He used to tell me what he learned in school.”

Interview with Maryam Mirzakhani, The Guardian (2014)

Born in Teheran in 1977, Mirzakhani’s childhood was set in the Iran-Iraq War days that ran from 1980-1988. Shortage and unrest are wartime training that govern its generation to think ahead. A hope for change strives for the need to excel. With elementary school done, she appeared for an entrance exam at Farzanegan Middle School, run by Iran’s National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents, aimed to educate the brightest students. The three years here familiarized the genius with her innate gift.

“I met my friend Roya Beheshti the first week after entering middle school. It is invaluable to have a friend who shares your interests, and helps you stay motivated. Our school was close to a street full of bookstores in Tehran. I remember how walking along this crowded street, and going to the bookstores, was so exciting for us. We couldn’t skim through the books like people usually do here in a bookstore, so we would end up buying a lot of random books.”

— Interview with Maryam Mirzakhani, The Guardian (2014)

Interestingly, in the first year, she did not do well in Math. Her teacher pronounced that she was not particularly talented and Mirzakhani lost interest in the subject. As an avid watcher of biographies of people on television, she wondered if writing instead was her forte. There are anecdotes about how, as a young girl, she would tell herself stories about the exploits of a remarkable girl. Every night at bedtime, her heroine would travel the world bringing into action some grand destiny.

Her destiny took shape when, in the second year she had a different Math teacher who encouraged her. This was the game changer. Mirzakhani took on numbers with such delight that soon she started solving mathematical problems which left the boys in a quandary. As a duo, the girls were gaining recognition. And entry into the acclaimed school’s higher section was just a formality.

Girls in a strongly-held male bastion in Iran’s patriarchal society was itself a reason to sit up and take note of. Sometime in 1993, the two found a copy of previous Mathematical Olympiad (MO) questions. The fact that they solved it spurred them to the principal.

“The principal of the school was a very strong character. If we really wanted something, she would make it happen. Her mindset was very positive and upbeat – that “you can do it, even though you’ll be the first one.” I think that has influenced my life quite a lot.”

— Quoted from Erica Klarreich’s article

The principal arranged for extra classes for Mirzakhani and Roya. Hitherto, it only happened for the most talented boys. In Iran, the MO is something akin to a fiercely contested scholarship/ fellowship in the US. Being part of the MO team is a prestigious and hugely coveted honour. The next step for the girls was obvious. Or was the duo an obvious choice remains an open-ended question.

In 1994, the girls made it to the Iranian MO team. At the international competition held in Hong Kong, Mirzakhani scored 41 out of 42. She bagged the gold and her friend, Beheshti, was awarded silver. By this time, newspapers in Tehran were awash with pictures of two hijab-clad girls among a group of boys. The spotlight was clear and the focus sharply defined.

The following year at the same meet held in Toronto, Mirzakhani scored 42. In ways, there was no looking back now.

An undergraduate course in mathematics at the Sharif University of Technology came funded with a fellowship. During her student days there, she received recognition from the American Mathematical Society for her work in developing a simple proof for a theorem of Schur. In 1999, she completed her BS in Math and proceeded to the United States for post-graduate work. But not before “Elementary Number Theory, Challenging Problems,” a book jointly collaborated on and published with her friend Roya.


Life in the US:

Her postgraduate days at Harvard were mentored by Curtis McMullen. The latter, a Fields Medal winner in 1998, and professor at Harvard, recalls the petite Mirzakhani as:

“She had a sort of daring imagination. She would formulate in her mind an imaginary picture of what must be going on, then come to my office and describe it. At the end, she would turn to me and say, “Is it right?” I was always very flattered that she thought I would know.”

— Quoted from Erica Klarreich’s article

From what was gathered, she was modest. She took her notes in Persian and loved to crouch upon the floor, drawing doodles on sheets of paper and write mathematical formulas around the drawings. To her credit, she had several papers published while still a student and finally in 2004, she was awarded a doctorate for her 130-page thesis Simple Geodesics on Hyperbolic Surfaces and Volume of the Moduli Space of Curves. For this exceptional thesis, she was also awarded the Leonard M and Eleanor B Blumenthal Award for the Advancement of Research in Pure Mathematics in 2009.

Dr Mirzakhani’s determination and questioning led her to solve problems where seemingly there were none. Her research work included Teichmüller theory, Hyperbolic Geometry, Ergodic Theory and Symplectic Geometry. For the layman, just figuring out the complex conundrums and measurements that run within, between and among them is daunting. For mathematics wizards, tweaking the surface to alter dimensions and working with a bit of science thrown in, is challenging. But for Mirzakhani, as she said:

“Usually I have some problems to think about on my own. You have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of Math.”

Not only did she simplify computing on curved surfaces such as a doughnut, but she also took it further to understand the dynamics of geometry in closed loops and on trajectories made by a billiard ball. The Fields Medal conferred on her in 2014, equivalent to a Nobel Prize in Math, was for her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.

In spirit, this professor from Iran broke all conventions in a West pacing towards xenophobic stereotypes, in turn stoked by the politics of opportunism. As she put it, in the context of Math:

“If we knew things would be so complicated, I think we would have given up. I don’t know; actually, I don’t know, I don’t give up easily.”

Her words ring true of her life itself. Mirzakhani was the star of her generation and will continue to be the guiding star for many women aspirants looking for a career in the male-dominated STEM avenues. Her indomitable quest and insatiable curiosity were at the core; and lending it all sheen was her simple humility.

She is survived by her husband Jon Vondrak, a Czech and professor at Stanford University and daughter Anahita, who fondly recalls her mother’s “paintings” strewn across the floor.

This real magic comes alive in reel life. “Secrets of the Surface: The Mathematical Vision of Maryam Mirzakhani,” a 59-minute film by George Csicsery celebrates the genius by putting together mathematical colleagues around the world, her former teachers, classmates and students in present-day Iran.

The rather conservative Shia-dominated Iran published Mirzakhani’s obituary in papers with a photo without her headscarf. In life, she created higher goals. And when no more, her legacy continues to break barriers.

About Author
Farah Hussain is a trained teacher, who had a stint as a features writer before settling at the newsdesk as a copy editor. She likes words and wordplay. Having lived in different cities across India, the dynamics of regional culture, tossed in geopolitics of the state is what she likes to follow. She likes to keep a tab on news, enjoys cooking and gardening.

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