News

Stanford professor wins highest award in mathematics

Solving proofs, she says, is like 'connecting the dots in a detective case'

A Stanford University professor today became the first woman to win the highest honor in mathematics.

Maryam Mirzakhani of Palo Alto was one of four mathematicians awarded the 2014 Fields Medal at a meeting of the International Mathematics Union in Seoul, South Korea.

The award cited Mirzakhani's sophisticated and original contributions to the fields of geometry and dynamical systems, particularly in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces, such as spheres, the surfaces of doughnuts and of hyperbolic objects. Although her work is considered pure mathematics and is mostly theoretical, it has implications for physics and quantum field theory.

Mirzakhani told the Stanford News Service that working on proofs is "fun – it's like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case.

"I don't have any particular recipe," she said of her approach. "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."

Mirzakhani said she would be happy if her award "encourages young female scientists and mathematicians.

"I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years," she said.

Born and raised in Tehran, Iran, Mirzakhani emerged on the international math scene as a teenager, winning gold medals at the International Math Olympiad in 1994 and 1995. After earning her bachelor's degree from Sharif University of Technology in 1999 she began work on her doctorate at Harvard University under the guidance of Fields Medal recipient Curtis McMullen.

By borrowing principles from several fields, she brought new understanding to the area of mathematics called low dimensional topology.

"What's so special about Maryam, the thing that really separates her, is the originality in how she puts together these disparate pieces," Stanford colleague Steven Kerckhoff said. "That was the case starting with her thesis work, which generated several papers in all the top journals. The novelty of her approach made it a real tour de force."

Mirzakhani, who came to Stanford in 2008, was from 2004 to 2008 a research fellow at Clay Mathematics Institute and an assistant professor at Princeton University.

Also winning Fields Medals today were the Brazilian-French mathematician Artur Avila of the French National Center for Scientific Research and the University of Paris; Manjul Bhargava of Princeton University; and Martin Hairer of Warwick University in England.

Mirzakhani is the first Stanford winner of the Fields Medal since Paul Cohen in 1966. The award was established in 1936.

— Palo Alto Weekly Staff

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by member
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Aug 13, 2014 at 10:26 am

Congratulations! A brilliant mind.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by steveb
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 13, 2014 at 10:31 am

steveb is a registered user.

Awesome.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Science nerd Mom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2014 at 10:57 am

Congratulations on the honor. Thanks for proving again that women and girls can do math!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by JA3+
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 13, 2014 at 2:04 pm

Congratulations! Here's to much future success at the Stanford's Department of Mathematics!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 13, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Nora Charles is a registered user.

Congratulations! I often feel awestruck to be surrounded by such brilliant minds.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Daniel
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 13, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Mathematics transcends gender. Congratulations for the great achievements and for bringing honor to Stanford!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Yippeeeee
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 13, 2014 at 5:46 pm

Hurray! So glad to see an AMERICAN woman win this honor!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 13, 2014 at 6:24 pm

Uh... mathematics transcends nationality.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Rupert of henzau
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 13, 2014 at 6:40 pm

Yippeeeeee- hate to burst your bubble, but she is Iranian:
Web Link

But that should not matter. My husband, who is an economist, says that this quite the honor. My DIL is studying to be a mathematician. Maybe someday she will win the prize


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2014 at 6:49 pm

Paul J. Cohen won the Fields Prize in 1966 for work he did on the continuum hypothesis in 1963 while living in Palo Alto, on Princeton Street in College Terrace (actually quite close to where Zuckerberg founded Facebook years later). Cohen's three sons, Steve, Eric and Charles attended Gunn High and were stalwarts in academics, student government, sports, The Gunn Oracle and drama, as a set, individually and collectively, sometimes twinned.

Let's hope the Mirzakhani family can continue to stay in Palo Alto and contribute to community life, and not be displaced by gentrification or forced to "sell-out".

Kudos.

I'm looking forward to either a graphic novel version of her work or a Hollywood pic with, if not Russell Crowe, Matt Damon or Robin Williams than at least Rachel Weisz or Hilary Swank. Anybody? (speaking of topology....)



 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dagwood
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 13, 2014 at 6:58 pm

Paul Cohen had proved the independence of Cantor's continuum hypothesis. Epic. Congratulations to ProfessorMirzakhani on her award but more for her dedication to great mathematics.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2014 at 7:12 pm

Does anyone know how the Fields Medal is awarded? Is there a nominating committee, or do people nominate themselves? Once a list of candidates has been determined, what criteria would the committee use in making the award?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Rupert of henzau
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 13, 2014 at 7:14 pm

Wonderimg:
Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2014 at 10:33 pm

Paul Cohen later moved to a home which was on the PAST Historic House Holiday Tour one year. I met him a couple times and knew he was in the
Math Dept at Stanford, we talked, but I did not know of his accomplishments until later, he was so unassuming.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Yippeeeee!
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 14, 2014 at 12:40 pm

Hey, she works for an AMERICAN school, that is what matters. She is HERE, and she won honors.

[Portion removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Rupert of Henzau
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 14, 2014 at 12:49 pm

"Hey, she works for an AMERICAN school, that is what matters. She is HERE, and she won honors."
That is not what you were cheering about earlier. But why does it matter what her nationality is and where her school is?

[Portion removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 14, 2014 at 12:55 pm

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Memories
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 14, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Mark Weiss - you know that Robin Williams is dead, right?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by 'Taint funny
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 14, 2014 at 2:03 pm

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Barron Parker
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 14, 2014 at 2:40 pm

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Stop the Trolls
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 14, 2014 at 4:12 pm

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sea-Seelam Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 14, 2014 at 10:53 pm

Congratulations!

You are outstanding!

Respectfully


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