Nearly three years after she became the first woman to win math’s equivalent of a Nobel Prize, Maryam Mirzakhani has died of breast cancer at age 40. Her death was confirmed Saturday by Stanford University, where Mirzakhani had been a professor since 2008.
Mirzakhani is survived by her husband, Jan Vondrák, and a daughter, Anahita — who once referred to her mother’s work as “painting” because of the doodles and drawings that marked her process of working on proofs and problems, according to an obituary released by Stanford.
“A light was turned off today …. far too soon. Breaks my heart,” former NASA scientist Firouz Naderi said in a tweet. He later added, “A genius? Yes. But also a daughter, a mother and a wife.”
Naderi later posted a time-lapse video of Mirzakhani presiding over a lecture hall, filling chalkboards with a proof.
Early in her life, Mirzakhani had wanted to be a writer. But her passion and gift for mathematics eventually won out.
“It is fun — it’s like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case,” Mirzakhani said when she won the prestigious Fields Medal in 2014. “I felt that this was something I could do, and I wanted to pursue this path.”
Mirzakhani was born in Tehran, Iran, and she lived in that country before coming to the U.S. to attend graduate school at Harvard University. By then, she was already a star, having won gold medals in the International Mathematical Olympiad in the mid-1990s — after becoming the first girl ever named to Iran’s team.
“There were more accolades,” Danielle Karson reports for NPR’s Newscast unit. “Mirzakhani was the first Iranian woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences last year, in recognition of her ‘distinguished achievement in original research.’ She was in good company: Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were past honorees.”
Describing Mirzakhani’s work, Stanford says:
“Mirzakhani specialized in theoretical mathematics that read like a foreign language by those outside of mathematics: moduli spaces, Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry.
“In short, Mirzakhani was fascinated by the geometric and dynamic complexities of curved surfaces — spheres, doughnut shapes and even amoebas. Despite the highly theoretical nature of her work, it has implications in physics, quantum mechanics and other disciplines outside of math. She was ambitious, resolute and fearless in the face of problems others would not, or could not, tackle.”