Iranian math genius Mirzakhani passes away

Maryam Mirzakhani. Credit Stanford University

The 40-year-old, who used to teach at Stanford University, was also the first Iranian woman to be elected to the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in May 2016 in recognition of her "distinguished and continuing achievement in original research".

"This isn't the kind of thing you do to win at pool, but it's the kind of thing you do to win a Fields Medal", University of Wisconsin professor Jordan Ellenberg wrote in a Slate article in 2014. In 2008, at 31, she became a professor at Stanford.

Mirzakhani was awarded the Fields Medal ― affectionately referred to as the "Nobel Prize for Mathematics" ― in 2014 for her work on dynamical systems and complex geometry.

Mirzakhani was hospitalized last week in California and tests showed that cancer had spread to her bone marrow.

Her friend Firouz Michael Naderi, an Iranian-American NASA scientist, said on Instagram, "A light was turned off today". "Maryam was a brilliant mathematical theorist, and also a humble person who accepted honors only with the hope that it might encourage others to follow her path".

Mirzakhani attended an all-girls high school in Tehran and grew up during the Iran-Iraq war.

Mirzakhani enjoyed pure mathematics because of its "elegance and longevity", she said. She won two gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad, bringing home the top honors in 1994 and 1995.

According to the awarding committee, Mirzakhani's genius came from her "rare combination of superb technical ability, bold ambition, far-reaching vision, and deep curiosity". She had already been battling the disease for several years.

She earned her BSc in mathematics from Iran's Sharif University of Technology in 1999 and her PhD from Harvard University in 2004. The challenge began as a thought exercise among physicists a century ago and had yet to be solved. Her young daughter described her mother at work as "painting".

The resulting paper, now more than 200 pages in length, was published in 2013.

Mirzakhani is survived by her husband, Jan Vondrák, and a daughter, Anahita.

"You're torturing yourself along the way", she would offer, "but life isn't supposed to be easy".

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