Mathematics and Gender Politics II – On the death of the mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani

Sometimes the timeliness of the own writing can surprise the author himself. A few days ago this blog was dedicated toEmmy Noether, the greatest mathematician of the twentieth century. It also mentioned the greatest female mathematician of the 21st century: Maryam Mirzakhani is the only female winner of the highest award in mathematics, the Fields Medal, which is often referred to as the „Nobel Prize for Mathematics“ (it is being given only every four years and this exclusively to persons under 40 years of age). And now, this weekend, the mathematics guilt receivedthe sad news that this extraordinary woman has died of breast cancer at the age of just 40 years. She leaves behind her husband, the computer scientist and applied mathematician Jan Vondrák, and a six-year-old daughter.

We look back at an extraordinarycareer that stands like few others for the possibilities talented women have in mathematicstoday, possibilities which Emmy Noether could have only dreamt of. Maryam Mirzakhani was born in 1977 in Tehran, a state which is generally not known to foster the promotion of women and gender equality. Nevertheless there are special state run schools for particularly talented girls, the so-called „Farzanegan schools“. One of them Maryam Mirzakhani was educated at in her early years. In the years 1994 and 1995, she won the gold medal for her home country at the International Mathematics Olympiad. However, right after graduating from the Tehran Sharif University in 1999 she moved abroad, where she received her PhD at the Harvard University in 2004, for which she later received the „Blumenthal Award of the American Mathematical Society“. Her rise was almost comet-like. As early as in 2008, Mirzakhani was appointed as a full tenure professor at the prestigious Stanford University. If only the Emmy Noether had lived to see that!

And even after her appointment to full tenure professor, the ascent of Mirzakhanis continued steeply. In the following years, she succeeded in proving some amazing theorems in the fields of topology and algebraic geometry – which are the very fields on which Emmy Noether wrote her most groundbreaking works.Mirzakhani’s work centeredespecially on the investigation of the symmetry of curved surfaces. She investigated certain closed curves on hyperbolic surfaces, the length of which interestingly does not change when deformed. This is considered „pure mathematics“, but it also providedsome important impulses for theoretical physics, especially for quantum field theories (also an interesting parallel to Emmy Noether). In the year 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani was awarded the Fields Medal for „her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces“, bringing together methods from different fields such as algebraic geometry, topology and probability theory. An introduction to her work is provided by the following link: Unfortunately, Maryam Mirzakhani had already been diagnosed with breast cancer at the award ceremony in Seoul, where she received the most applause by the audience of the international mathematics elite.

In her home country, the death of Mirzakhanis was received with grief, but also with pride and praise. Numerous daily newspapers printedherphotograph on the first page, and President Hassan Rohani personally described the news as „heartbreaking“. Despite her Western lifestyle, she was a popular figure in Iran ever since she was the first woman ever to climb the highest mountain of mathematics. Back then Rohani had also tweetedpersonally after the announcement of the Fields medal award to congratulate her and thereby triggered a headscarf debate. Because with his tweet he published two pictures of the honoree. One showed her with her publicly known short haircut, the other with a headscarf. Clothing regulations are very strict for women in Iran, and violations of the duty to wear a headscarf are still being punished with prison and possibly even whipping. The national Iranian media mostly reported critically about Rohani’s message and the image of the female mathematician without a headscarf. However, the President also received support from many sides as he had put Mirzakhani’s performance over her missing headscarf. And so it should be in the 21st century: Women should be judged according to their performance and not their clothing or appearance. Heroines like Maryam Mirzakhani remind us of that and inspire us, even if today we mourn in the first place.

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