South Korean President Park Geun-hye, sixth from left, poses with award winners during the opening ceremony of the 2014 International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul on Tuesday. Iranian mathematics professor Maryam Mirzakhani, sixth from right, is the first female winner of the Fields Medal. (Yonhap News Agency via European Pressphoto Agency).
Although Albert Einstein praised another as “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began” after her death in the ’30s, she couldn’t get a teaching job. When she finally did, the Nazis took it away because she was Jewish.
The struggles of female mathematicians Hypatia (killed in the 5th century), Sophie Germain (1776–1831) and Emmy Noether (1882–1935) are now history. However, not until Tuesday did a woman win the Fields Medal — “the Nobel of math,” as Time magazine put it — first awarded in 1936.
The achievement of Stanford University professor Maryam Mirzakhani is not just unprecedented, but unlikely in a field where women remain underrepresented. As few as 9 percent of tenure-track positions in math are held by women, according to a 2010 study.
“This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians,” Mirzakhani said in a Stanford University press release. “I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”
A native of Iran, Mirzakhani studies “geometry and dynamical systems, particularly in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces, such as spheres, the surfaces of doughnuts and of hyperbolic objects,” as Stanford phrased it.
What this means for people who couldn’t hack trigonometry: Her work may help engineers and cryptographers.
And she’s not working on any single problem.
“I don’t have any particular recipe,” Mirzakhani said. “It is the reason why doing research is challenging as well as attractive. It is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.”