It was an incredible day in 2014 when Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to win the Fields Medal. I remember feeling absolutely overwhelmed with emotion and thinking to myself, alright, beginning today winning the Fields Medal is officially something that women do. It went from something impossible to something possible, just like that. It felt like the breaking of such a monumental glass ceiling, and like the opening up of this entire alternate universe of possibility. It was huge. At the time, Erica Klarreich wrote about Mirzakhani’s early life and work for Quanta Magazine.
It was with almost unbearable sadness that news of her passing broke last month. Mirzakhani died at only 40 years old, and the world became dimmer one shining star.
The weeks since have seen an outpouring of writing celebrating the life and work of Mirzakhani and mourning her death. Fellow Fields Medalist Terrence Tao shared a post the day after Mirzakhani’s passing, highlighting her contributions to the field and his own experiences in meeting her. Blogger and mathematician John Baez also wrote a thoughtful piece about Mirzakhani’s life and mathematics. The blog Mathsbyagirl featured a tribute post to Mirzakhani with links to expository articles on the key areas of Mirzakhani’s research.
Our own inclusion/exclusion blog posted about how Mirzakhani shone in all of her various roles, as mathematician, mother, trailblazer, and role model, with reflections on her life by various notable women in math. From Tai-Danae Bradley, “While reading through the many beautifully written tributes to Maryam, I am especially touched by one theme that pervades them all: her character. Words like persistent, determined, and resolute appear time and time again. And her humility and modesty seem to have garnered as much attention as her mathematical accomplishments.”
RAGE of the Blackboard, a blog exploring the bridge between scientists and artists, featured an illustration of Mirzakhani and spoke about the importance of drawing in her work. Mirzakhani often said in interviews that she enjoyed doing math by writing, drawing, and doodling on large pieces of butcher paper.
The AMS has collected a full list of tributes and obituaries for Mirzakhani, including words from AMS president Ken Ribet and a short video from the Simon’s Foundation.
This month has also seen the passing of several other notable women in math. Cathleen Morawetz, who did pioneering work related to airflow at supersonic speeds, died last week at the ago of 94. Earlier in July, Marina Ratner, who found acclaim later in life, died at the age of 78. Mathematician Amie Wilkinson wrote for the NYTimes about the shared aspects of Ratner’s and Mirzakhani’s works, despite very divergent lives. This month also saw the passing of Marjorie Rice at the age of 94. Rice was an amateur mathematician who made a big discoveries in the study of pentagonal tiling.
It is with tremendous sadness that we bid farewell to these mathematicians who inspired us and gave us so much. The impact of their work will surely continue to resound for many decades to come.