Recently, there was a major milestone in the mathematics world. Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to be awarded the Fields Medal (Math’s highest honor). Mirzakhani is a 37-year-old mathematics professor at Stanford University and she grew up in Tehran, Iran. She was able to take a placement test in elementary school just as the Iran-Iraq War was ending. “I think I was the lucky generation,” she said. “I was a teenager when things got more stable.” (A Tenacious Explorer of Abstract Surfaces). Mirzakhani had little interest in Mathematics as a child, she was intent on consuming every piece of literature she could get her hands on. Her voracious appetite for reading lead her to study famous women, and pushed her to pursue greatness from a young age.
“Mirzakhani’s win also speaks to another cultural change in mathematics. Her research area, dynamics, is an infant compared to the other major branches of math. Number theory, geometry, and analysis have histories measured in centuries. Dynamics—the abstract theory of motion and change over time—is only a little more than 100 years old. And its modern form really only got going in the 1950s.” (Math is Getting Dynamic).
Dynamics, which stems from celestial mechanics, essentially explains how the universe works. “You have a bunch of bodies positioned somewhere in space, and then gravity does what it does. One simple rule—bodies attract one another with a force proportional to their mass and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them—determines the behavior of the system over all future time.” (Math is Getting Dynamic). Basically, dynamics can be applied to almost all forms of mathematics, but it has only been studied seriously since the 1950’s due to its abstract connotations.
Mirzakhani is leading a new generation of mathematicians who think in more abstract terms. Specifically, she thinks in images and often draws her interpretations of math with shapes and pictures on huge sheets of paper. Mirzakhani’s research connects to many areas of mathematics, including differential geometry, complex analysis and dynamical systems. “I like crossing the imaginary boundaries people set up between different fields — it’s very refreshing,” she said. In her area of research, “there are lots of tools, and you don’t know which one would work,” she said. “It’s about being optimistic and trying to connect things.” (A Tenacious Explorer of Abstract Surfaces).
Maryam Mirzakhani is clearly breaking down boundaries in multiple ways. She is an influential mathematician just approaching her prime in a field that is still lightly defined. On top of that, she is an excellent role model and example for young girls and children in general aspiring to study mathematics. STEM Education is an extremely important topic, and the modernization of mathematics will help children and young students become more involved and interested in the discipline.
A Tenacious Explorer of Abstract Surfaces by Erica Klarreich
Math is Getting Dynamic by Jordan Ellenberg