Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, a Stanford University professor and the only female winner of the Fields medal (which is like the Nobel Prize for mathematics, except it’s awarded once in four years to people under the age of 40) passed away in a hospital in California on Saturday, after cancer in her breast spread to her bone marrow. She was only 40 years old.
It’s been said that the work she won the Fields medal for will change the future understanding of how the universe was formed. Even Stanford University’s own statement on her work seemed well-aware of her genius, and mentioned that to people outside the field, her work and immense contributions would read like a foreign language, and it does. The work involved “moduli spaces, Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry”. For her thesis at Harvard University, she solved two problems that had never been solved before, and her recent work “focused on the trajectory of a billiards ball going round a polygonal table, a problem that has stumped mathematicians for a century”. Here’s a silent video of her in action.
— Firouz M. Naderi (@Firouz_Naderi) July 15, 2017
Upon her demise, she received tributes from people all over the world, but there’s also something particularly important and poignant in how Iranian newspapers chose to report her death. Back when she won the Fields medal in 2014, the Guardian reports that Iranian newspapers, in keeping with strict laws in the country, digitally retouched images of her face to add a hijab, while others chose to use a sketch of her with her head uncovered rather than publish such a photograph.
Now, in her death, she seems to have broken that taboo too. Everyone from the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, to a state newspaper, Hamshahri, published tributes to her that featured her image without hijab.
Of course, it should also surprise no one that Iranian newspapers ran poetic and lovely headlines on her death, like Hamshahri‘s ‘Maths genius yielded to algebra of death’, and Donya-e-Eqtesad’s ‘The queen of mathematics’ eternal departure’.