Stanford University professor Maryam Mirzakhani, the first and only woman and Iranian to ever win a Fields medal, died on Saturday from breast cancer. She was 40 years old.
The Fields medal, presented every four years, is the most prestigious award available in mathematics and considered the equivalent of the Nobel prize. Mirzakhani was one of four winners in 2014, having received the honor for her work on complex geometry and dynamic systems, the Guardian reports.
Mirzakhani’s death is “a big loss and shock to the mathematical community worldwide,” Peter C. Sarnak, a mathematician at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, told the New York Times. “She was in the midst of doing fantastic work. Not only did she solve many problems. In solving problems, she developed tools that are now the bread and butter of people working in the field.”
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who made news in 2014 after he tweeted a congratulatory photo of Mirzakhani without a headscarf, released a statement expressing his “great grief and sorrow:” Via the Times:
“The unparalleled excellence of the creative scientist and humble person that echoed Iran’s name in scientific circles around the world,’’ he wrote, “was a turning point in introducing Iranian women and youth on their way to conquer the summits of pride and various international stages.”
Unlike the Nobel prize, the Fields medal is only presented to those under the age of 40, usually as a predictor of future accomplishments. Mirzakhani’s work can be described as a complex game of billiards with eternally bouncing balls—an audacious undertaking that had been approached by several prominent mathematicians before. The Times elaborates:
Sometimes, the path can be a repeating pattern. A simple example is a ball that hits the side of a rectangular billiards table at a right angle. It would then bounce back and forth in a line forever, never moving to any other part of the table.
But if it bounced at an angle, the trajectory would be more intricate, and would often cover the entire table. “You want to see the trajectory of the ball,” she explained in a video produced by the Simons Foundation and the International Mathematical Union to profile the 2014 Fields winners. “Would it cover all your billiard table? Can you find closed billiards paths? And interestingly enough, this is an open question in general.”
In the Fields medal video, Mirzakhani explains that she hadn’t always wanted to study math, and that as a child she’d wanted to be a writer. She grew up in Tehran during the war with Iraq, which ended just in time for her to enjoy her teenage years in relative stability.
Mirzakhani received her bachelor’s degree from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran before attending graduate school at Harvard. She then became a professor at Princeton, and joined at the staff at Stanford in 2008.
Colleagues told Stanford News Service that Mirzakhani was “ambitious, resolute and fearless” in the face of the problems she’d tackle—problems so thorny that other mathematicians often shied away from them. “You’re torturing yourself along the way,” she said, “but life isn’t supposed to be easy.”
The Fields was established in 1936. Prior to 2014, every one of its 52 recipients were men.