First woman winner of Fields Medal cracks mathematics’ glass ceiling

Iranian is first woman winner in the 80-year history of the Fields Medal, the discipline's top honour known as 'Nobel prize for mathematics'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 August, 2014, 9:33pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 4:27am


It will go down in history as the moment one of the last bastions of male dominance fell. A woman has won the world's most prestigious mathematics prize for the first time since the award was established nearly 80 years ago.

Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian maths professor at Stanford University in California, was named the first female winner of the Fields Medal - often described as the Nobel prize for mathematics - at a ceremony in Seoul yesterday.

The maths community has been abuzz with rumours for months that Mirzakhani was in line to win the prize. To outsiders her work is esoteric, abstract and impenetrable. But to more qualified minds, she has a breathtaking scope, is technically superb and boldly ambitious. She describes the language of maths as full of "beauty and elegance".

The prize, worth 15,000 Canadian dollars (HK$106,000) is awarded to exceptional talents under the age of 40 once every four years by the International Mathematical Union. Between two and four prizes are announced each time.

Three other researchers were named Fields Medal winners at the same ceremony in South Korea: Martin Hairer, a 38-year-old Austrian based at Warwick University in Britain, Manjul Bhargava, a 40-year old Canadian-American at Princeton University in the United States and Artur Avila, 35, a Brazilian-French researcher at the Institute of Mathematics of Jussieu in Paris.

There have been 55 Fields medallists since the prize was first awarded in 1936, including this year's winners. The Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman refused the prize in 2006 for his proof of the Poincare conjecture.

Mirzhakhani, 37, was among a number of women tipped for the prize in recent years and her success won immediate praise from fellow mathematicians.

Christiane Rousseau, vice president of the International Mathematics Union, said: "It's an extraordinary moment. 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."

Born and raised in Iran, Mirzakhani completed a PhD at Harvard in 2004. Her path into mathematics was not a given, though. As a child, her passion was not for numbers, but literature.

It was Mirzakhani's brother who first piqued her interest in science. He used to come home from school and talk over what he had learned. He told her the story of the German mathematician, Carl Friedrich Gauss, who displayed his precocious skills as a schoolboy when he worked out in seconds how to sum all the numbers from 1 to 100 - the answer is 5,050 and the trick is to look at pairs that add up to 101.

"That was the first time I enjoyed a beautiful solution, though I couldn't find it myself," she said.

The seed began to germinate, with help from her school principal, a woman who made every effort to ensure her students had the same opportunities as the boys. As a teenager, Mirzakhani took part in international maths olympiads and won gold medals in 1994 and in 1995. In the first, in Hong Kong, she dropped a single point. At the latter, in Toronto, she finished with a perfect score.

Most of the problems Mirzakhani works on involve geometric structures on surfaces and their deformations. She has a particular interest in hyperbolic planes, which can look like the edges of curly kale leaves. According to the International Mathematical Union, Mirzakhani won the prize for her "outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces".