Iranian woman wins maths’ top prize, the Fields medal
- 20:32 12 August 2014 by Dana Mackenzie
A woman has won the maths world’s “Nobel prize” for the first time. Maryam
Mirzakhani of Stanford University, California, will receive the Fields medal
tomorrow at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul, South Korea.
The medal is awarded once every four years to at most four recipients, who must
be aged under 40 at the start of that year. All the previous 52 Fields medallists,
dating back to 1936, have been male.
Mirzakhani, who is Iranian, studies the geometry of moduli space, a complex
geometric and algebraic entity that might be described as a universe in which
every point is itself a universe. Mirzakhani described the number of ways a beam
of light can travel a closed loop in a two-dimensional universe. To answer the
question, it turns out, you cannot just stay in your “home” universe – you have to
understand how to navigate the entire multiverse. Mirzakhani has shown
mathematicians new ways to navigate these spaces.
Mirzakhani first attracted international attention as a high-school student in 1995,
when she was the first Iranian student to achieve a perfect score in the
International Mathematics Olympiad.
“She is very, very well known in Iran, where she is held out as an example for
younger students,” says Ingrid Daubechies, the president of the International
Mathematical Union, which selects the Fields medallists.
“Speaking as a woman myself, it is a wonderful thing to see her win,” Daubechies
adds. “It will lay to rest the often-quoted fact that a woman has never won.” In
future, she says, the idea of a woman winning the top maths award will no longer
The three other winners are Brazilian-born Artur Avila of Denis Diderot University
in Paris, France, who studies how chaotic systems evolve when constrained by
certain rules; Manjul Bhargava, a number theorist at Princeton University; and
Martin Hairer, an expert in partial differential equations at the University of