It will go down in history as the moment one of the last bastions of male dominance fell. A woman has won the world’s most prestigious mathematics prize for the first time since the award was established nearly 80 years ago.
Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian maths professor at Stanford University in California, was named the first female winner of the Fields Medal – often described as the Nobel prize for mathematics – at a ceremony in Seoul on Wednesday.
The maths community has been abuzz with rumours for months that Mirzakhani was in line to win the prize. To outsiders her work is esoteric, abstract and impenetrable. But to more qualified minds, she has a breathtaking scope, is technically superb and boldly ambitious. She describes the language of maths as full of “beauty and elegance”.
The prize, worth 15,000 Canadian dollars (£8,000), is awarded to exceptional talents under the age of 40 once every four years by the International Mathematical Union. Between two and four prizes are announced each time.
Three other researchers were named Fields Medal winners at the same ceremony in South Korea. They included Martin Hairer, a 38-year-old Austrian based at Warwick University in the UK, Manjul Bhargava, a 40-year old Canadian-American at Princeton University in the US and Artur Avila, 35, a Brazilian-French researcher at the Institute of Mathematics of Jussieu in Paris.
There have been 55 Fields medallists since the prize was first awarded in 1936, including this year’s winners. The Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman refused the prize in 2006 for his proof of the Poincaré conjecture.
Mirzhakhani, 37, was among a number of women tipped for the prize in recent years and her success won immediate praise from fellow mathematicians.
Christiane Rousseau, vice president of the International Mathematics Union, said: “It’s an extraordinary moment. Marie-Curie had Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry at the beginning of the 20th century, but in mathematics this is the first time we have a woman winning the most prestigious prize there is. This is a celebration for women.”
“I am thrilled that this day has finally come,” said Sir Tim Gowers, a Fields medallist and mathematician at Cambridge University. “Although women have contributed to mathematics at the highest level for a long time, this fact has not been visible to the general public. I hope that the existence of a female Fields medallist, who will surely be the first of many, will put to bed many myths about women and mathematics, and encourage more young women to think of mathematical research as a possible career.”
Most of the problems Mirzakhani works on involve geometric structures on surfaces and their deformations. She has a particular interest in hyperbolic planes, which can look like the edges of curly kale leaves, but may be easier to crochet than explain. According to a citation released by the International Mathematical Union, Mirzakhani won the prize for her “outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces”.
Hairer won for his “outstanding contributions to the theory of stochastic partial differential equations”, which contain terms that are inherently random. At school, he created audio software that he marketed as “the Swiss army knife of sound editing”.
Avila was honoured for his “profound contributions to dynamical systems”. Bhargava won for “developing powerful new methods in the geometry of numbers”, including elliptic curves used in cryptography.
“The mathematics that has been the most applicable and important to society over the years has been the mathematics that scientists found while searching for beauty; and eventually all beautiful and elegant mathematics tends to find applications,” said Bhargava.
Mirzakhani declined an interview, but she told the CMI in 2008 that while maths was not for everyone, many students did not give it a real chance. She did poorly at maths for several years at school because she was not interested in the subject. “I can see that without being excited, mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers,” she said.