Why Maryam Mirzakhani is a hero for women in science

Professor Maryam Mirzakhani is the recipient of the 2014 Fields Medal, the top honor in mathematics. She is the first woman in the prize’s 80-year history to earn the distinction. The Fields Medal is awarded every four years on the occasion of the International Congress of Mathematicians to recognize outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement.

Professor Maryam Mirzakhani is the recipient of the 2014 Fields Medal, the top honor in mathematics. She is the first woman in the prize’s 80-year history to earn the distinction. Image: Stanford News Service


“Math is the poetry of logical ideas,” one of the most aesthetic quotes on math by Albert Einstein is a good reminder to treat the subject as something that revolves around our ecosystem.


BY DIPIN DAMODHARAN

I was lucky enough to attend good math classes in the high school and college days.

Indeed, the theories and equations in math have some kind of impact in shaping my approach towards life.

For me, universe (probably multiverse) is all about logic, complex problems and simple solutions, and it is inseparably intertwined with math at its core.

“Math is the poetry of logical ideas,” one of the most aesthetic quotes on math by Albert Einstein, is a good pointer to treat the subject as something that revolves around our ecosystem.

Exploring the oneness of universe with these logical ideas demands some extraordinary courage; imagine the situation for a woman born and brought up in a conventional religious state. Defying the odds, she did it in style, and became one of the most revered mathematicians of our time.

Maryam Mirzakhani, the first and to-date only female winner of the Fields Medal since its inception in 1936, had achieved the pinnacle of glory in math when time took her life at the age of 40, after her long battle with cancer.

More than the success story of a hardworking passionate woman, Maryam’s life has multiple implications as she achieved super stardom in a field of science that has offered women a path ridden with thorns since time immemorial.

Eminent French physicist Pierre Curie said one of the worst anti-women statements I have ever heard in the world of science. He said it prior to meeting his scientist-wife Marie Curie. A pioneer in crystallography, magnetism, piezoelectricity and radioactivity, Pierre Curie had written that women of genius are rare and explained about the problems an average woman would create in a scientist’s life.

“Marriage to an ordinary woman would place limits on my anti-natural path of almost complete devotion to science,” Curie said.

Even an intellectual with the IQ level of a scientist was sceptical about the potential of women in science. There has not been a dramatic change in this ideology with the course of time. That’s the reason why it took 80 years for a woman to win a Fields Medal, the highest honour in mathematics which is often called the Nobel of math.

Math experts believe that Mirzakhani’s works may help theoretical physics to come to a more logical conclusion on how the universe came to exist

80 years since the award was first given, there has still been only one female winner so far, Maryam Mirzakhani. She was awarded the Fields Medal along with Indian-origin Manjul Bhargava and UK mathematician Martin Hairer in 2014 for her efforts in the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.

school-938760_960_720Math experts believe that Mirzakhani’s works may help theoretical physics to come to a more logical conclusion on how the universe came to exist.

It was a thrilling journey for a normal girl to come all the way from Tehran to Stanford, and credited with some extraordinary achievements in science.

After graduating  at Sharif University in Tehran, she joined graduate school at Harvard University, and then a professor at Stanford University in 2008. Taking math as a novel where each character had its own tones, she immersed in the world of theories and geometry.

Why it had taken so long to award a woman the highest award in mathematics. Was it because women of genius are rare, as Curie believed? The answer is a strong no, and the problem lies with our line of thinking and the much disturbing patriarchal mindset of the academic world.

While studying in the all-girls high school in Tehran, Mirzakhani dared to compete for Iran’s International Mathematical Olympiad team. She was the first girl to do that, and most of the people around her shocked with her adventure.

But this mathematical luminary was destined to break the glass ceilings in her society, and earned gold medals in 1994 and in 1995.

She wanted to carve a path for other girls to come up with courage in the field of sciences. The life and death of this famed mathematician calls for a more egalitarian approach in the world of knowledge. It’s evident in the statement of Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne after her death.

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

It should be noted that only 20 percent of full-time math faculty in the US universities are women, according to the figures with American Mathematical Society. Even Iran memorialized this genius without the headscarf as an honour to her commitment toward sciences. More than an amazing mathematician, Mariyam Mirzakhani is a social change maker in all senses.

We need more Mirzakhanis as heroic figures in sciences, and the greatest tribute for her is to develop an ecosystem for a true egalitarian culture in the academic world.

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