Female Mathematician Makes History by Winning Fields Medal
byKaitlin StanfordAug 15, 2014
Snagging the coveted Fields Medal has been a dream of math whizzes everywhere since the honor was first bestowed back in 1936. Since then, 55 different mathematicians have earned the prestigious award from all over the world. But aside from their incredible genius and devotion to the field of math, the winners all had one other thing in common: they were all men.
Until this week.
On August 13, Iranian-born mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani made history by becoming the first woman ever to win the coveted award. The Stanford math professor, 37, was honored for her achievements in math at a ceremony in Seoul, along with three other contemporaries: 38-year-old Austrian Martin Hairer, who is based at Warwick University in the UK; 40-year-old Canadian-American Manjul Bhargava, who teaches at Princeton University; Artur Avila, a 35-year-old Brazilian-French researcher at the Institute of Mathematics of Jussieu in Paris.
But needless to say, despite being one of four winners, it's Mirzakhani's achievements that are making headlines.
"It's an extraordinary moment," said Christiane Rousseau, vice president of the International Mathematics Union. "Marie Curie had Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry at the beginning of the 20th century, but in mathematics this is the first time we have a woman winning the most prestigious prize there is. This is a celebration for women."
"I am thrilled that this day has finally come," added Sir Tim Gowers, a Fields medalist and mathematician at Cambridge University. "Although women have contributed to mathematics at the highest level for a long time, this fact has not been visible to the general public. I hope that the existence of a female Fields medalist, who will surely be the first of many, will put to bed many myths about women and mathematics, and encourage more young women to think of mathematical research as a possible career."
Ironically, Mirzakhani's path to greatness did not come naturally, at first. Growing up, her great love was for literature, not math. "I dreamed of becoming a writer," she shared in an interview for the Clay Mathematics Institute back in 2008. "I never thought I would pursue mathematics before my last year in high school."
It was actually her brother who opened that door for Mirzakhani. Teaching her of the things he learned in school, her big brother would often come home and tell his sister the stories he'd heard about the great mathematicians. Stories like the one of German-born Carl Friedrich Gauss, whose genius was discovered as a child when he proved he could figure the sum of all numbers 1 to 100 – in a matter of seconds. (It's 5,050, by the way.) "That was the first time I enjoyed a beautiful solution, though I couldn't find it myself," Mirzakhani later said.
It was then that the seeds were sown, and Mirzakhani began to foster a newfound love of math. She went on to participate in math olympiads as a teen, and later moved on to study at the Sharif University of Technology before earning her PhD at Harvard.
Back in 2008, Mirzakhani shared that perhaps the key to succeeding in math is never to give up when it seems too hard. In fact, she admitted it took her years to get better at it — and that only happened once she developed more of an interest.
"I can see that without being excited, mathematics can look pointless and cold," she told CMI. "The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers."
Watch Mirzakhani chat about her path to the Fields Medal, and just what it is she loves about math.