Saturday, July 15, 2017

Maryam Mirzakhani, RIP

This news is really tragic because the death is truly premature.

Maryam Mirzakhani, the world's first female Fields Medal winner and Persia's first winner of that award, died of breast cancer at an American hospital today. The disease was recurrent and things became terrible when the disease spread to the bone marrow.



She was born in 1977 to parents who always supported her even though they weren't ever too ambitious, she once told me. Her father Ahmad is an electrical engineer. Maryam is also survived by her Czech husband Jan Vondrák, a computer scientist at Stanford and their daughter Anahita (*2011). For a while, we were (theoretical physics!) classmates in Prague with him in late 1994 and/or early 1995 and he we overlapped at Rutgers (in different dpts) in 1999-2001.




Maryam was born in Tehran in May 1977. As a kid, she wanted to write fiction novels. She was talented so they accepted her to a high school for exceptionally talented students, the "NODET" network, in Farzanegan. Sometime at that moment, someone pointed out to her that she was really good in mathematics. Her maturing as a mathematician looked automatic since that time. Both in 1994 and 1995, she won gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad, the second one was with a perfect score.




In 1999, she got her BSc from Sharif "MIT" in Tehran. Then she studied her PhD at Harvard when I was a Junior Fellow there. Curtis McMullen – a Fields medalist – was her adviser. She finally got her PhD in 2004. She was immediately offered an easier access to the Harvard Society of Fellows so we talked to her during several fancy dinners. Well, I think that I was sitting next to her during all these occasions. I think it's right to say that she was a modest and shy genius, perhaps somewhat resembling Juan Maldacena in some respects.

She refused the offer to become a junior fellow because she had something that ultimately looks better than even the best postdoc-like jobs. In 2004, she accepted a junior faculty position at Princeton while she was also a research fellow at the Clay Mathematics Institute. The jobs probably overlapped. Now, her salary as junior faculty at Princeton almost certainly trumped the salary of the Harvard Junior Fellows but if I were making this decision today, with everything I know, I would surely choose the Harvard Junior Fellowship at that time. At any rate, soon afterwards, she soon moved from Princeton to Stanford where she met her Czech husband – a move that physicists refer to as a solution to the two-body problem.

She received the 2014 Fields Medal as the first woman. It may be estimated that under meritocratic conditions, a woman wins this medal once in 103 years or so. Her medal was mostly for her work on the moduli spaces of Riemann surfaces, especially for her 2007 proof of a formula for volumes of the moduli spaces (previously conjectured by Witten, Kontsevich, guys of this caliber are normal in that field). However, she has done lots of related mathematical work that was usually focusing on the modular group, moduli spaces, and geodesics – which were sometimes shown to be ergodic, sometimes very regular and not chaotic, and similar issues were relevant.

I believe that in general, breast cancer is overdiagnosed and most of the women who undergo a treatment would do just OK without it. Sometimes, sadly, the diagnosis is so spot on that even a treatment isn't enough. Czech singer Anna K was just diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. She plans to fight it by a string of concerts throughout the summer.

RIP, Maryam.

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